The most-talked-about fantasy of the year is almost here! Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao hits shelves on 11/19/19. Start reading the first five chapters now and prepare yourselves! In the Cyrilian Empire, it’s time to choose a side…
The prison bore a sharp resemblance to the dungeons of Anastacya’s childhood: dark, wet, and made of unyielding stone that leaked grime and misery. There was blood here, too; she could sense it all, tugging at her from the jagged stone steps to the torch-blackened walls, lingering at the edges of her consciousness like an ever-present shadow.
It would take so very little—a flick of her will—for her to control it all.
At the thought, Ana twined her gloved fingers tighter around the worn furs of her hood and turned her attention back to the oblivious guard several paces ahead. His varyshki bull- leather boots clacked in smooth, sharp steps, and if she listened closely enough, she could hear the faint jingle of the goldleaves she’d used to bribe him in his pockets.
She was not a prisoner this time; she was his customer, and that sweet rattle of coins was a constant reminder that he was— for now—on her side.
Still, the torchlight cast his flickering shadow on the walls around them; it was impossible not to see this place as the fabric of her nightmares and hear the whispers that came with.
Papa would have told her that this was a place filled with demons, where the evilest men were held. Even now, almost a year after his death, Ana found her mouth running dry as she imagined what he would say if he saw her here.
Ana shoved those thoughts away and kept her gaze straight ahead. Monster and murderer she might be, but that had nothing to do with her task at hand.
She was here to clear her name of treason. And it all depended on finding one prisoner.
“I’m telling you, he won’t give you nothing.” The guard’s coarse voice pulled her from the whispers. “Heard he was on a mission to murder someone high-profile when he was caught.”
He was talking about the prisoner. Her prisoner. Ana straightened, grasping for the lie she had rehearsed over and over again. “He’ll tell me where he hid my money.”
The guard threw her a sympathetic glance over his shoulder. “You’d best be spending your time somewhere nicer and sunnier, meya dama. More’n a dozen nobles have bribed their way into Ghost Falls to see him, and he’s given ’em nothing yet. He’s made some powerful enemies, this Quicktongue.”
A long, drawn-out wail pierced the end of his sentence, a scream so tortured that the hairs on Ana’s neck rose. The guard’s hand flitted to the hilt of his sword. The torchlight cut his face, half in flickering orange, half in shadow. “Cells are gettin’ full of ’em Affinites.”
Ana’s steps almost faltered; her breath caught sharply, and she let it out again, slowly, forcing herself to keep pace.
Her disquiet must have shown on her face, for the guard said quickly, “Not to worry, meya dama. We’re armed to the teeth with Deys’voshk, and the Affinites’re kept locked in special blackstone cells. We won’t go near ’em. Those deimhovs are locked in safe.”
A sickly feeling stirred in the pit of her stomach, and she dug her gloved fingers into her palm as she cinched her hood tighter over her head. Affinites were usually spoken of in hushed whispers and fearful glances, accompanied by tales of the handful of humans who had Affinities to certain elements. Monsters—who could do great things with their powers. Wield fire. Hurl lightning. Ride wind. Shape flesh. And then there were some, it was rumored, whose powers extended beyond the physical.
Powers that no mortal being should have. Powers that belonged either to the Deities or to the demons.
The guard was smiling at her, perhaps to be friendly, perhaps wondering what a girl like her, clad in furs and velvet gloves— worn, though clearly once luxurious—was doing in this prison.
He would not be smiling at her if he knew what she was.
Who she was.
Her world sharpened into harsh focus around her, and for the first time since she’d stepped into the prison, she studied the guard. Cyrilian Imperial insignia—the face of a roaring white tiger—carved proudly upon his blackstone-enforced breastplate. Sword at his hip, sharpened so that the edges sliced into thin air, made of the same material as his armor—a half- metallic, half-blackstone alloy impervious to Affinite manipulation. And, finally, her gaze settled on the vial of green-tinged liquid that dangled from his belt buckle, its tip curved like the fang of a snake.
Deys’voshk, or Deities’ Water, the only poison known to subdue an Affinity.
She had stepped, once again, into the fabric of her nightmares. Dungeons carved of cold, darker-than-night blackstone, and the bone-white smile of her caretaker as he forced spice-tinged Deys’voshk down her throat to purge the monstrosity she’d been born with—a monstrosity, even in Affinites’ terms.
Beneath her gloves, her palms were slick with sweat.
“We have a good selection of employment contracts up for sale, meya dama.” The guard’s voice seemed very far away. “With the amount of money you’ve offered to see Quicktongue, you’d be better off signing one or two Affinites. They’re not here for any serious crimes, if that’s your concern. Just foreigners without documents. They make for cheap labor.”
Her heart stammered. She’d heard of this corruption. Foreign Affinities lured to Cyrilia with promises of work, only to find themselves at the traffickers’ mercy when they arrived. She’d even heard whispers of guards and soldiers across the Empire falling into the pockets of the Affinite brokers, goldleaves flowing into their pockets like water.
Ana had just never expected to meet one.
She tried to keep her voice steady as she replied, “No, thank you.”
She had to get out of this prison as fast as possible.
It was all that she could do to keep planting one foot ahead of the other, to keep her back straight and chin high as she had been taught. As always, in the blind mist of her fear, she turned her thoughts to her brother—Luka would be brave; he would do this for her.
And she had to do this for him. The dungeons, the guard, the whispers, and the memories they brought back—she’d endure it all, and endure it a hundred times over, if it meant she could see Luka again.
Her heart ached as she thought of him, but her grief was an endless black hole; it wouldn’t do to sink into it now. Not when she was so close to finding the one man who could help her clear her name.
“Ramson Quicktongue,” barked the guard, drawing to a stop outside a cell. “Someone here to collect.” A jangle of keys; the cell door swung open with a reluctant screech. The guard turned to her, raising his torch, and she saw his eyes pass over her hood again. “He’s inside. I’ll be here—give me a shout once you’re ready to be let back out.”
Drawing a sharp breath to summon her courage, Ana threw back her shoulders and stepped into the cell.
The rancid smell of vomit hit her, along with the stench of human excrement and sweat. In the farthest corner of the cell, a figure slumped against the grime-covered wall. His shirt and breeches were torn and bloody, his wrists chafed from the manacles that locked him to the wall. All she could see was matted brown hair until he raised his head, revealing a beard covering half of his face, filthy with bits of food and grime.
This was the criminal mastermind whose name she’d forced from the lips of almost a dozen convicts and crooks? The man on whom she had pinned all her hopes for the past eleven moons? She froze, however, as his eyes focused on her with sharp intent. He was young—much younger than she’d expected for a renowned crime lord of the Empire. Surprise twanged in her stomach.
“Quicktongue,” she said, testing her voice, and then louder— “Ramson Quicktongue. Is that your real name?”
A corner of the prisoner’s mouth curled in a grin. “Depends on how you define ‘real.’ What’s real and what’s not tends to get twisted in places like these.” His voice was smooth, and he had the faint lilt of a crisp, high-class Cyrilian accent. “What’s your name, darling?”
The question caught her off guard. It had been nearly a year since she’d exchanged pleasantries with anyone other than May. Anastacya Mikhailov, she wanted to say. My name is Anastacya Mikhailov.
Except it wasn’t. Anastacya Mikhailov was the name of the Crown Princess of Cyrilia, drowned eleven moons past in her attempt to escape execution for murder and treason against the Cyrilian Crown. Anastacya Mikhailov was a ghost and a monster who did not, and should not, exist.
Ana fisted her hands tightly over the clasp of her hood. “My name is none of your concern. How fast can you find someone within the Empire?”
The prisoner laughed. “How much can you pay me?” “Answer the question.”
He tilted his head, his mouth a mocking curve. “Depends on who you’re looking for. Several weeks, perhaps. I’ll trace my network of wicked spies and twisted crooks to your precious person of concern.” He paused and clasped his hands together, his chains jangling loudly with the movement. “Hypothetically, of course. There are limits to even what I can do from inside a prison cell.”
Already it felt from their conversation as though she were walking a tightrope, and a single misplaced word could send her plunging. Luka had gone over the basics of negotiation with her; the memory lit like a candle inside the darkness of the cell. “I don’t have several weeks,” Ana said. “And I don’t need you to do anything. I just need a name and a location.”
“You drive a hard trade, my love.” Quicktongue grinned, and Ana narrowed her eyes. From the sleazy way he spoke and the glint of glee in his eyes, it was clear he found amusement in her desperation, though he had no idea who she was and why she was here. “Luckily, I don’t. Let’s make a deal, darling. Free me from these shackles, and I’m yours to command. I’ll find your handsome prince or worst enemy within two weeks, be it at the ends of the Aramabi Desert or the skies of the Kemeiran Empire.”
His drawl set Ana’s nerves on edge. She could guess at how these conniving criminals worked. Give them what they wanted and they’d stab you in the back faster than you could blink.
She would not fall into his trap.
Ana reached into the folds of her worn cloak, drawing out a piece of parchment. It was a copy of one of the sketches she’d made in the early days after Papa’s death, when the nightmares woke her in the middle of the night and that face haunted her through every second of her days.
In a swift motion, she unfurled the parchment.
Even in the dimness of the guard’s flickering torchlight outside, she could make out the contours of her sketch: that bald head and those melancholy, overlarge eyes that made the subject appear almost childlike. “I’m looking for a man. A Cyrilian alchemist. He practiced medicine at the Salskoff Palace some time ago.” She paused, and dared a wager. “Tell me his name, and where to find him, and I’ll free you.”
Quicktongue’s attention had been drawn to the image the second she showed it, like a starved wolf to prey. For a moment, his face was still, unreadable.
And then his eyes widened. “Him,” he whispered, and the word bloomed into hope in her heart, like the warmth of the sun dawning upon a long, long night.
Eleven moons of solitude, of hiding, of dark nights in the cold boreal forests of Cyrilia and lonely days trawling through town after town—eleven moons, and she’d finally, finally found someone who knew the man who had murdered her father.
Ramson Quicktongue, the bartenders and pub crawlers and bounty hunters had whispered to her when they each returned empty-handed from their search for a phantom alchemist. Most powerful crime lord in the Cyrilian underbelly, vastest network. He could track down a noblewoman’s guzhkyn gerbil on the other side of the Empire within a week.
Perhaps they’d been right.
It was all Ana could do to keep her hands steady; she was so focused on his reaction that she almost forgot to breathe.
Quicktongue’s eyes remained fixed on the portrait, entranced, as he reached for it. “Let me see.”
Her heart drummed wildly as she rushed forward, stumbling slightly in her haste. She held out the sketch, and for a long moment, Quicktongue leaned forward, his thumb brushing a corner of her drawing.
And then he sprang at her. His hand snapped around her wrist in a viselike grip, the other clapping over her mouth before she had a chance to scream. He gave her a sharp tug forward, twisting her around and holding her close to him. Ana made a muffled sound in her throat as the stench of his unwashed hair hit her. “This doesn’t have to end badly.” His tone was low when he spoke, his earlier nonchalance replaced by a sense of urgency. “The keys are hanging outside, by the door. Help me get out, and I’ll give you whatever information on whomever you want.”
She wrenched her face free from his filthy hand. “Let me go,” she growled, straining against his hold, but his grip only tightened. Up close, beneath the torchlight, the hard-edged glint of his hazel eyes suddenly took on a wild, almost crazed look.
He was going to hurt her.
Fear spiked in her, and from years of training, a single instinct sliced through her mist of panic.
She could hurt him, too.
Her Affinity stirred, drawn by the warm pulse of his blood, rushing through her and filling her with a sense of power. At her will, every drop of blood in his body could be hers to command.
No, Ana thought. Her Affinity was to be used only as an absolute last resort. As with any Affinite, her power came with tells. The slightest stir of her power turned her irises to crimson and darkened the veins in her forearms—a clear indication of what she was, for those who knew how to look for it. She thought of the guard outside, of the curve to his vial of Deys’voshk, of the wicked glint of his blackstone sword.
She was so focused on tamping down her Affinity that she didn’t see it coming.
Quicktongue’s hand darted out and flicked the hood off her head.
Ana stumbled back, but the damage was done. Quicktongue stared at her eyes, the anticipation on his face giving way to triumph. He’d seen the crimson of her irises; he’d known to look for it—for the tell to her Affinity. A grin twisted his mouth even as he let go of her and yelled, “Affinite—help!”
Before she could fully realize that she had fallen into his trap after all, sharp footsteps sounded behind her.
Ana spun. The guard burst into the cell, his blackstone sword raised, the green tint of Deys’voshk he’d poured over the blade catching the torchlight.
She dodged. Not fast enough.
She felt the sharp bite of the blade on her forearm as she stumbled to the other side of the cell, her breath ragged. The sword had sliced through her glove, the fabric peeling open to reveal a faint trickle of blood.
The world narrowed, for a moment, into those droplets of blood, the slow curve of their path down her wrist, the shimmer of the beads as they caught the torchlight, glinting like rubies.
Blood. She felt her Affinity awakening to the call of her element. Ana ripped off the glove, hissing at the sting of the open air on her wound.
It had started—the veins running up her arm had darkened to a bruised purple, protruding from her flesh in jagged streaks. She knew how this looked; she’d stared at herself in the mirror for hours on end, eyes swollen from crying and arms bleeding from having tried to scratch out her veins.
A whisper found her in the dark.
Ana looked up and met the guard’s gaze just as he raised his torch.
Horror twisted his features as he backed toward Quicktongue’s corner and pointed his sword at her.
Ana swiped a finger across her wound. It came away wet, with a smudge of green-tinted liquid that mingled with her blood.
Deys’voshk. Her heart raced, and memories flickered through her mind: the dungeons, Sadov forcing the bitter liquid down her throat, the weakness and dizziness that followed. And, inevitably, the emptiness where her Affinity had once been, as though she’d lost her sense of sight or smell.
The years she’d spent downing this poison in the hopes of cleansing her Affinity from her body had, instead, resulted in a tolerance to Deys’voshk. Whereas the poison blocked most Affinites’ abilities almost instantaneously, Ana had fifteen, sometimes twenty, minutes before it rendered her Affinity useless. In a desperate bid to survive, her body had adapted.
“You move and I’ll cut you again,” the guard growled, his voice unsteady. “You filthy Affinite.”
A jangle of metal, a flash of tangled brown hair. Before either of them could do anything, Quicktongue snapped his chains around the guard’s neck.
The guard let out a choked gasp as he clawed at the chains that now dug into his throat. From the shadows behind him, Ramson Quicktongue’s smile sliced white.
Bile rose in Ana’s throat, and a wave of dizziness hit her as the poison began to work its way through her. She clutched at the wall, sweat beading on her forehead despite the cold.
Quicktongue turned to her, holding the struggling guard close. His expression was now predatory, his earlier nonchalance sharpened to the hunger of a wolf. “Now, let’s try this again, darling. The keys should be hanging on a nail outside the cell door—standard protocol before a guard steps into a cell. The set for my chains are the fork-shaped iron ones, fourth down in the row. Unlock me, get us both out of here unscathed, and we can talk about your alchemist.”
Ana steadied herself against the tremors in her body, her gaze darting between Quicktongue and the guard. The guard’s eyes rolled back into his head, and spittle bubbled at his mouth as he choked for air.
She had known how dangerous Quicktongue was when she had come searching for him. Yet she had never expected him, a prisoner shackled to the stone walls of Ghost Falls, to get this far.
Unchaining him would be a terrible, terrible mistake. “Come, now.” Quicktongue’s voice grounded her to the
horrifying choice. “We don’t have much time. In about two minutes, the next shift will be here. You’ll be thrown into one of these cells and sold off in some work contract—and we all know how that goes. And I’ll still be here.” He shrugged and tightened his chains. The guard’s cheeks bulged. “If that’s the scenario you prefer, then I must say I’m disappointed.”
The shadows in the room were swaying, contorting. Ana blinked rapidly, trying to steady her racing pulse against the first stage of the poison. Next would come the chills and the vomiting. And then the sap in her strength. All the while, her Affinity would be diminishing like a candle burning to the end of its wick.
Think, Ana, she told herself, clenching her teeth. Her eyes darted around the cell.
She could torture the man while she still had her Affinity. She could draw his blood, hurt him, threaten him, and get the location of her alchemist.
Tears pricked at her eyes, and she shut them against the images that threatened to crowd into her mind. Amid all her memories, one burned as brightly as a flame in the chaos. You are not a monster, sistrika. It was Luka’s voice, steady and firm. Your Affinity does not define you. What defines you is how you choose to wield it.
That’s right, she thought, drawing a deep breath and trying to anchor herself in her brother’s words. She was not a torturer. She was not a monster. She was good, and she would not subject this man—no matter how dark his intentions—to the same horrors she had once been through.
Which left her with one option.
Before she knew it, she had crossed the room and snatched the keys from the wall, and was fumbling at the prisoner’s chains. They fell with a click. Quicktongue sprang away from them and darted across the room in the blink of an eye, rubbing his chafed wrists. The guard slumped to the floor, unconscious, his breath wheezing through his half-open mouth.
A fresh wave of nausea rolled over Ana. She clung to the wall. “My alchemist,” she said. “We had a deal.”
“Ah, him.” Quicktongue strode to the cell door and peered outside. “I’m going to be honest with you, love. I have no idea who that man is. Good-bye.” In the blink of an eye, he was on the other side of the bars. Ana lurched forward, but the cell door swung shut with a clang.
Quicktongue jangled the keys at her. “Don’t take it too personally. I am a con man, after all.”
He threw a mock salute, spun on his heels, and disappeared into the darkness.
For a moment, Ana only stood, staring at his retreating back, feeling as though the world were disappearing beneath her feet. Conned by a con man. A bitter laugh wheezed from her throat. Had she not expected that? Perhaps, after all these months she’d spent learning to survive on her own, she was really only a naïve princess who couldn’t survive beyond the walls of the Salskoff Palace.
Her wound throbbed, a trickle of blood and Deys’voshk winding gently down her arm, filling the air with its metallic tang.
Her Affinity stirred.
No, Ana thought suddenly, touching a finger to her wound. The drops of blood seemed to pulse at her fingertips. No, she was not just a naïve princess. Princesses did not have the power to control blood. Princesses did not murder innocent people in broad daylight in the middle of a town square. Princesses were not monsters.
Something snapped within her, and suddenly she was choking on years of built-up ire, churning with nauseating familiarity.
No matter what she did, no matter how good she tried to be, she always ended up as the monster.
The rest of the world dimmed, and then there was only the blood trickling down her arm and onto the floor in slow, singular droplets.
You want me to be the monster? Ana lifted her gaze to the corridor where Ramson had disappeared. I’ll be the monster.
Reaching into that twisted place within her, Ana stretched her Affinity.
It was like lighting a candle. The shadows that had been pulling at her senses burst into light as her Affinity reached out to the very element that made her monstrous: blood.
It was everywhere: inside every prisoner in the cells surrounding her, splattered and streaked on the filthy walls like paint, from vivid red to faded rust. She could close her eyes and not see, but feel it, shaping the world around her and gradually, several corridors down, fading into nothingness beyond her reach. She sensed it coursing through veins, as powerful as rivers and as quiet as streams, or still and stale as death.
Ana stretched her hands, feeling as though she was breathing in deeply for the first time in a long time. All this blood. All this power. All hers to command.
She found the con man easily, the adrenaline pumping through his body lighting him like a blazing torch among flickering candles. She focused her Affinity on his blood and pulled. A strange sense of exhilaration filled her as the blood obeyed, every drop in Quicktongue’s body leaping to her desire. Ana drew a deep breath and realized that she was smiling. Little monster, a voice whispered in her mind—only, this time, it was her own. Perhaps Sadov had been right after all.
Perhaps there was some twisted part of her that was monstrous, no matter how hard she tried to fight it.
A shout rang out in the hallway, followed by a thud, then sounds of scuffling. And then slowly, from the darkness, a foot emerged. Then a leg. And then a filthy torso. She dragged him to her by his blood, savoring the way it leapt at her control, the way he jerked like a marionette under her power.
Outside her cell, Quicktongue writhed on the ground. “Stop,” he panted. A red blotch appeared on his sweat-stained tunic, soaking through the fabric and filth. “Please—whatever you’re doing—”
Ana reached an arm through the cell bars and seized his collar, wrenching him so close that his face thunked against the metal. “Silence.” Her voice was a low snarl. “You listen to me. From now on, you will obey my every word, or this pain that you feel right now”—she tugged at his blood again, drawing a low moan—“will be just the start.” She heard the words as though someone else were speaking through her lips. “Are we clear?”
He was panting, his pupils dilated, his face pale. Ana tamped down any guilt or pity she might have felt.
It was her turn to command. Her turn to control. “Now open the door.”
The con man roused himself in starts and stops, shaking visibly. A sheen of sweat coated his face. He fumbled with the lock, and the cell door squeaked open.
Ana stepped out of the cell and turned to him. The world swayed slightly as another bout of dizziness hit her—yet her stomach clenched in twisted pleasure as Quicktongue cringed. Blots of red were spreading on his shirt where vessels in his skin had broken. Tomorrow these would become ugly bruises that
pocked his body like some hideous disease. The devil’s work, Sadov had called it. The touch of the deimhov.
Ana turned away before she could feel revulsion at what she had done. Her hand automatically darted to her hood, pulling it back over her head to hide her eyes. Her hands and forearms felt heavy, streaked with jagged veins engorged with blood. She tucked her ungloved hand inside her cloak, fingers twisting against the cold fabric, feeling exposed without her glove.
The hairs on her neck rose when she realized that the prison had gone completely silent.
Something was wrong.
The moans and whispers of the other prisoners had quieted, like the calm before a storm. And then, several corridors down, a loud clang sounded.
Ana tensed. Her heart started a drumroll in her chest. “We need to get out of here.”
“Deities,” cursed Quicktongue. He’d pulled himself up from the ground and sat leaning heavily against the wall, panting, the corded muscles of his neck clenching and unclenching. “Who are you?”
The question came out of nowhere; she could think of a thousand ways to answer. Unbidden, memories flipped through her mind like the pages of a dusty book. A white-marble castle in a wintry landscape. A hearth, a flickering fire, and Papa’s deep, steady voice. Her brother, golden-haired and emerald- eyed, his laugh as radiant as the sun. Her aunt, doe-eyed and lovely, head bowed in prayer with her dark braid falling over her shoulder—
She pressed the memories back, replacing the wall that she’d carefully built over the last year. Her life, her past, her crimes—these were her secrets, and the last thing she needed was for this man to see any weaknesses in her.
Before she could respond, Quicktongue leapt. He moved so fast that she’d barely let out a surprised grunt when his hand clamped down over her mouth again and he spun her behind a stone pillar. “Guards,” he whispered.
Ana rammed her knee between his legs. Quicktongue doubled over, but past his furious whisper-curses, she heard the sound of footsteps.
Boots thudded down the dungeon hallway, the rhythmic beat of several guards’ steps. She could make out the dim light of a far-off torch, growing brighter. Voices echoed in the corridor and, judging by the sound of laughter, the guards were cracking jokes.
Ana loosed a breath. They hadn’t been discovered. These guards were only making their rounds.
Quicktongue straightened and leaned into her as he pressed himself against the pillar. Huddled together, their hearts beating the same prayer, they might have been partners in crime, or even allies. Yet the glare in his eyes reminded her that they were anything but.
She tried not to breathe as the guards passed by the pillar. They were so close that she heard the rustle of their rich fur cloaks, the scuff of their boots on the grimy floor.
A sudden realization hit her. The guard. They had left him unconscious in Quicktongue’s cell.
By her side, Quicktongue tensed as well, as though he’d reached the same conclusion. He hissed a curse.
A panicked shout rang out, followed by the ominous squeak of the cell door. Ana squeezed her eyes shut, dread blooming cold in her chest. They had discovered the unconscious guard. “Listen to me.” Quicktongue’s voice was low and urgent. “I’ve studied the plans of this prison—I know the layout as well as I know the goldleaves in my purse. We both know you’re not getting out of here without my help, and I need your Affinity as well. So I’m asking you to trust me for now. Once we’re out of this damned place, we can go back to tearing each other’s throats out. Sound good?”
She hated him—hated the fact that he had fooled her, and the fact that he was right.
“Fine,” she breathed. “But if you even think of using any tricks, just remember what I can do to you. What I will do to you.”
Quicktongue was scanning the corridor ahead, his head cocked as he listened. “Fair enough.”
Beyond their pillar, one of the guards stepped into the cell and desperately shook his fallen comrade. The other two foraged farther into the depths of the dungeons with their swords drawn, torches held high. Hunting.
Quicktongue’s beard tickled her ear. “When I say ‘run’ . . .” The torchlight grew dimmer.
Ana dashed from the pillar. She didn’t think she’d ever run this fast before. Cells flew by on either side of her in dark streaks of color. Down at the end of the corridor, so small that she could have blocked it out with a thumb, was the sliver of light from the exit.
She dared a glance back to find Quicktongue tearing toward her.
“Go!” he shouted. “Don’t stop!”
The light was bright ahead of her, the stone ground hard beneath her pounding feet. And before she knew it, she was at the stairs, careening up two at a time, her breaths ragged in her throat.
She emerged into bright, unyielding daylight. Immediately, her eyes began to water.
Everything was white—from the marble floors to the high walls to the arched ceilings. Sunlight streamed through the narrow, high windows above their heads, magnified by the marble. This, Ana had read, was part of the prison’s design. The prisoners would have stayed in the darkness underground for so long that they would be blinded as soon as they emerged from the dungeons.
And despite all of her careful reading and research, she had no way out of this trap but to wait for her eyes to adjust.
A loud clang sounded behind her. Through her tears, she saw Quicktongue twisting the key to lock the dungeon doors in place. He hurtled up the steps, three at a time, and when he reached the top, he clamped his hands over his eyes with a curse.
Beyond this hall, somewhere that Ana could not locate, shouts echoed. A faint clattering sound thrummed along the marble floors and reverberated off the blindingly white walls—the sound of boots tapping and weapons being drawn.
The alarm had been raised.
Ana looked at Quicktongue. Through the blur of her tears, she could make out the look of pure panic that flitted across his face—and Ana realized that, despite all his cunning and bravado, Ramson Quicktongue did not have a plan.
Fear sharpened her wits, and the world shifted into focus as the smarting in her eyes faded. Corridors fanned out in all directions from them: three to her left, three to her right, three before her, three behind her, all identical, all white.
Her head pounded with the effects of the Deys’voshk; she couldn’t even remember which way she’d come in. This place was a maze, designed to trap prisoners and visitors like quarry on a spider’s web.
Ana seized Quicktongue’s shirt. “Which way?”
He peered out from a slit between his fingers and groaned. “The back exit,” he mumbled.
She drew a breath. Of course, none of her readings of Ghost Falls—which had been sparse enough to come by already— had mentioned a back exit. The front, Ana knew, had three sets of locked and guarded doors, not to mention a courtyard watched by archers who would stick them like shooting-range targets if they even stepped a toe outside. She’d taken it all in quietly as she’d followed the guard inside—back then as a visitor.
Never, in her wildest imagination, had she thought she would be running from the prison with a convicted criminal in tow and a dozen guards on her trail.
Fury spiked in her; she grasped Quicktongue by his filth- stained tunic and shook him. “You got us into this mess,” she snarled. “Now you get us out. Which way to the back exit?”
“Second door . . . second door to our right.”
Ana hauled him into a run after her. Boots pounded along one of the corridors—she couldn’t tell which. At any moment, the reinforcements would be there.
They were halfway down the hallway when a shout rang out behind them. “Stop! Stop in the name of the Kolst Imperator Mikhailov!”
The Glorious Emperor Mikhailov. They flung Luka’s name around so casually, so authoritatively. As though they knew anything about her brother. As though they had the right to command by his name.
Ana turned to face the prison guards. There were five of them, silver Cyrilian tiger emblazoned against white uniforms, their blackstone swords drawn and flashing in the sunlight. They had come fully equipped, with helmets, too; their attire glittered with the telltale gray-hued alloy.
They snarled at her, spreading out like hunters surrounding an untamed beast. There was once a time when they might have knelt in her presence, when they would have raised two fingers to their chests and drawn a circle in a sign of respect. Kolst Pryntsessa, they would have whispered.
That was long past now.
Ana’s fingers curled over her hood, pulling it closer. She raised her other hand, wounded and gloveless, at the guards. Blood trickled down her arm in a lover’s spiral, vivid crimson against the dusky olive of her skin.
Nausea stirred in the pit of her stomach, and her throat ached with revulsion. Unlike apprenticed or employed Affinites who had honed their abilities for years, Ana had only a basic and crude control over hers. Fighting this many people at once could easily mean losing control of her Affinity entirely. It had happened before—nearly ten years earlier—and it made her sick to think of it.
An archer knelt into position, the tips of his arrows glistening with Deys’voshk. Ana swallowed. “Cover me,” she said to Quicktongue, and her Affinity roared to life.
Show them what you are, my little monster. Show them.
She let her Affinity free and it coursed through her, singing and screaming and writhing in her veins. Through the haze of her frenzy, she latched on to the outlines of the five guards, their blood racing through their bodies with a combination of adrenaline and fear.
She held those bonds and gave a sharp, violent pull— Flesh tore. Blood filled the air. Her Affinity snapped.
The physical world rushed back in a torrent of white marble floors and cold sunlight. Somehow she was on all fours, her limbs trembling as she struggled to breathe. The beige-gold veins of the marble floor spun before her eyes, the Deys’voshk running its course through her head. In less than ten minutes, the onset would be complete; her Affinity would be gone.
She leaned forward, her back arching to a fit of coughs.
Crimson spattered the white marble floors.
A hand closed on her shoulder. Ana flinched. Quicktongue crouched by her side, his mouth hanging open as he surveyed the scene.
The corridor was eerily empty. Beyond the stairwell, scattered throughout the hallway, were five crumpled shapes. They lay still in pools of their own blood, the dark stains inching over the floor and creeping across her senses.
The touch of the deimhov.
“Incredible,” Quicktongue murmured, looking at her with a mixture of awe and delight. “You’re a witch.”
She ignored the insult and slumped over the polished marble floor, panting. The use of her Affinity had drained her energy, as it always did.
“Stay here,” Quicktongue ordered. Then he was gone.
Ana pushed herself onto her knees. She was suddenly too conscious of the bodies around her, cold and still in their deaths. Their blood hung in her awareness, roaring rivers turned to pools of dead water, eerily silent. The white marble gleamed in contrast to the crimson, sunlight spilling bright on the blood as though to say: Look. Look what you’ve done.
Ana curled forward, wrapping her arms around herself to stop her shaking. I didn’t mean to. I lost control. I didn’t ask for this Affinity. I never meant to hurt anyone.
Perhaps monsters never meant to hurt others, either. Perhaps monsters didn’t even know they were monsters.
She counted down from ten to give herself time to stop crying and get off the floor. The blood smeared beneath her palms as she stood. She leaned against the wall and drew in deep breaths, her eyes closing to avert the sight before her.
Ana started. Quicktongue stood before the second corridor to her right, a cord of rope slung over his shoulder. He waved at her and turned down the hallway, disappearing from sight.
How long had he stood there, watching her break down? She stared after him, unease filtering through the tide of her exhaustion.
“Hurry!” His voice drifted back, echoing slightly.
It took every ounce of her willpower to straighten her spine and hobble after him.
The prison was built like a maze. Kapitan Markov had educated Ana on prison designs when she was only a young girl. His face would crease beneath his gray-peppered hair when he smiled at her, and the familiar smell of his shaving cream and armor metal had grown to soothe her.
In his steady baritone, he had told her that Cyrilian prisons were labyrinths that trapped prisoners who tried to escape, so that the panic and uncertainty had them losing their minds by the time they were recaptured. The outer rings of these maze- prisons were heavily guarded, but guards on the inside were more sparse simply because they shot any prisoners who managed to wander into the outer layers.
She could only hope this back exit of Quicktongue’s did not promise such a swift death.
Ahead, the con man moved with predatory grace that reminded her of a panther she’d once seen in an exotic animal show in Salskoff. She caught the wink of a stolen dagger in his hands, the sigil of a white tiger flashing on the hilt.
As though he heard her thoughts, he spared her a glance. “Tired?” he whispered. “That’s the price you Affinites pay for your abilities, isn’t it? Plus our friend back there gave you a pretty dab of Deys’voshk.”
A guard rounded the corner, saving her the pain of thinking up a pithy comeback.
In three light steps, Quicktongue was at his throat. A flash of metal and the guard dropped, the white-tiger hilt protruding from his chest. Even through her haze of fatigue, Ana could tell that there was a trained precision to Quicktongue’s movements, a science to the way he angled his blade.
Quicktongue sheathed his dagger in a practiced stroke. “Almost there,” he said.
It grew dimmer, sconces fixed more and more sparsely along the walls. Marble turned into rough-hewn stone, and once or twice Ana thought it would go completely dark. She kept her Affinity flared like a torch, all the while conscious of its diminishing range as the Deys’voshk steadily took over. Even Quicktongue, whose fast-flowing blood should have been easy for her to track, wove in and out of her awareness like a phantom.
Through the rhythmic clack of their heels, another sound had emerged—faint, but growing louder, like the whisper of wind brushing through the tall frost-larches outside her windows.
The sound of . . . water.
They had to be at the back of the prison, then, where the bodies of dead prisoners were dumped along with sewage and waste. Unlike most Cyrilian prisons, which were built atop rivers for easy disposal, Ghost Falls was built atop a cliff sliced through with a waterfall, earning its name. There was even a twist to the old joke: the prisoners were stuck between a cliff and a waterfall.
A cliff and a waterfall.
Her legs felt watery. “Quicktongue,” Ana gasped, and then she was shouting. “Quicktongue!”
He’d disappeared around the corner. Ana pushed herself into a run, the churning water growing louder until even her footsteps were muffled by the rushing sound.
The next hallway ended abruptly in a narrow arched door made of blackstone. Its cold and eerie lightlessness whispered to her.
Quicktongue knelt before the door, his gray tunic a ghostly blur against the blackstone. In the semidarkness, his hands worked with the precision of the Palace physicists Ana had studied with. Something flashed between his fingers; he made a quick downward motion, and the door jarred open.
The muffled pounding sharpened into a roaring sound that reverberated between the stone walls and low ceiling overhead. Quicktongue pushed the door open, and Ana felt her stomach drop.
Beyond the blackstone door, the corridor ended abruptly, as though someone had taken a butter knife and sliced it off neatly. Two large pillars rooted the end of the hallway into the outcrop of cliffs below. The gray-blue sky of Cyrilia stretched for miles over their heads, until it met the expanse of glittering snow-covered landscape. Beneath, ice-white waters foamed and plunged downward. Ana’s legs grew weak as the familiar fear of water churned within her, carved into the bones of her memory from an incident a long, long time ago. The merciless waters of a river—a very different one—had nearly killed her not once but twice many years past.
Quicktongue was already in motion. He unslung the thick length of rope he’d been hauling. With fluid ease, he looped one end of the rope around a pillar. His fingers wove some kind of complicated knot.
Deities. Ana pressed herself against the back wall and willed her knees not to buckle. This was the back exit Quicktongue had spoken of: the open sewer place where they dumped excrement and dead bodies.
And they were going to jump. “I’m not jumping down there with you,” she yelled, edging back into the turn of the corridors, behind the blackstone door.
Quicktongue knelt by the ledge. “Not sure how far you got in your schooling, sweetheart, but here’s some wisdom from the streets. Anyone who tries to jump down there will die. The impact will shatter your bones.”
The waterfall plunged like a roaring beast, fading into a white mist so thick that she couldn’t even see the bottom.
Quicktongue tested his knot. The rope stretched taut. “You coming, Witch?”
Ana was almost convinced he was mad. “You just said anyone who tries to jump down there will die.”
Quicktongue straightened. Outlined against the misty blue Cyrilian sky, above the frothing white waters, he looked almost heroic. “I did. But, darling, we’re not going to jump.” He gestured to the length of rope—most of which lay coiled in a heap between them like a snake. The other end looped around the pillar. “I plan to lower us to the river below. I’ve done the calculations. It’ll work.” He grinned and brought his index finger and thumb close to each other. “It’ll be a tiny, dainty step. Like stepping off a carriage. Except . . . off a ledge.”
His eyes glinted with mirth, and she wanted to choke him. Deities, she was going to die. Behind her: guards who would imprison her and sell her into indenturement. Before her: a mad con man who was likely going to leap to his death.
“Well?” Quicktongue listed his head. With his trickster’s fingers, he’d already tied the other end of the rope securely around his waist and was waggling the last length of it at her. “We’ve spent a good five minutes getting here. They’ve raised the alarm, so more guards’ll be on us like bees on honey. You’re wasting my time, darling.”
Ana turned her gaze back to the waterfall, watching the frothing white waters pound down at speeds that would shatter bone. And suddenly, she imagined herself caught in those currents as she had been ten years ago, the foam and the waves crushing her chest and twisting her limbs and pressing at her lips and nose.
Somewhere back in that labyrinth, above the pounding of the waterfall, shouts sounded. She pushed her Affinity out, but it had weakened to the point that all she felt were the faintest wisps of blood. The wound on her arm gave a particularly nasty throb. A few more minutes and there would be nothing left of her Affinity to fight with.
There was no turning back now.
She wanted to cry, but she knew from her years with Sadov in the dungeons that crying achieved nothing. In the face of fear, one could choose to run, or to rise.
So Ana swallowed her nausea, bit back her tears, and lifted her chin as she marched past the blackstone door. The floor was uneven and wet, and a smell—as though something, or many things, had rotted here—choked her as she ventured out farther. “I didn’t come here to die, con man,” she snapped as she picked her way over to him. “If you try anything, I’ll kill you before the water does. And trust me, you’d beg me to let you drown instead.” Quicktongue was balancing on the edge of the white marble floor, holding on to the rope. His lips quirked as he began to strap her tightly against his chest with the last bit of rope on his end. “Fair enough.”
Ana inhaled sharply as the rope cut into her back and waist. Quicktongue gave her a crooked grin. “I know I smell, love, but you’ll thank me later when you’re still alive.”
The wind whipped against her face as she shuffled to the edge, where the ground ended and the nothingness began. Her hair tore loose from its austere knot, dark chestnut strands fluttering against an open blue sky.
Quicktongue gave the rope another tug. “Hold tight,” he shouted, and despite herself, Ana wrapped both arms around his filthy tunic, keeping her face as far from his chest as possible without straining her neck.
He swung them off the ledge.
Whatever revulsion she’d felt toward Quicktongue dissolved, and she found herself clinging tightly to him as though her life depended on it.
They dangled right beneath the ledge of Ghost Falls, spiraling gently. The waterfall roared in her ears, so close that she could reach out and touch it. The length of rope connecting them to the pillar tumbled beneath them in a long loop, disappearing into the white mist.
Slowly, Quicktongue began to lower them. His muscles were taut, veins popping from his neck as he placed one hand below the other.
Ana dared a look down. The sight had her gripping Quicktongue more tightly, swallowing her panic. She might have sent a thousand prayers to her Deities, but none would have mattered. In this instant, there was only her and the con man.
Ana looked up. The mist was so thick that she could barely make out the ledge of the prison anymore. That was a good thing. “How much longer?” she screamed, barely hearing her own voice over the waterfall.
“Almost!” He was shouting, but his words were hardly audible. “We need to get to the end of this rope, or the fall will kill us.”
Ana squinted up. Something—a movement in the mist— had her instinctively grasping for her Affinity. There it was: the faintest wisp, an echo of her powers, still struggling beneath the Deys’voshk.
She frowned as she sensed something through her bonds, so faint that it almost slipped past her.
A gust of wind slammed into them and Ana closed her eyes, trying to block out the dizzying swinging sensation. When she opened them again, the wind had cleared some of the mist. At the top, over the ledge of Ghost Falls, was the outline of an archer, his bow and arrow angled toward them.
“Look out!” she cried, and the first arrow whizzed over their heads.
The second struck Quicktongue.
He grunted in pain as it grazed his shoulder, slicing open his sleeve and drawing blood. Ana bit back a scream as Quicktongue’s grip slipped against the slick rope. They lurched, spinning wildly, a hand’s breadth from being battered to death by the waterfall. Above, the archer nocked another arrow.
Below, she saw the end of the length of rope, looping up to connect to Quicktongue’s waist. The end of the rope. They had to get to the end of the rope, or they would die.
Ana reached into herself, digging until she was nothing but blood and bone. And she found it, the last remnants of her
Affinity, as faint as a dying candle, still fighting against the Deys’voshk.
Ana stretched out her hand and latched on to the blood of the archer. And pushed.
The archer tensed and swayed for a second, as though a sudden gust of wind had hit him. Ana let her hand fall. Warmth trickled down her lip and she tasted her own blood.
That was it. The Deys’voshk had won; she had no more to give.
But it had been enough to distract the archer and get them to the end of the rope.
Quicktongue let go and reached to his hip. His dagger glinted dull silver. He leaned toward Ana, his eyes narrowed, his expression sharpened to dead, lethal calm. “Don’t struggle, don’t move. Just hold on to me. Feetfirst, toes pointed.”
She had barely processed his words, barely let a taste of fear reach the tip of her tongue.
Quicktongue raised his arm. “First step to becoming a ruffian,” he said, “is learning to fall.”
His blade flashed. He brought his arm down with ruthless force.
And then they were falling.
The river claimed them as soon as they hit it, pulling them under with vengeance in its white-furled fluxes and battering them like leaves in a gale. Ramson let the tides take him. He knew the waters, knew when to let himself go and when to push against it. The river did not yield. It was all about learning to swim with the current.
These waters were different from the wide-open seas of Ramson’s childhood. In Bregon, the waters were cobalt blue, the caps flecked with sunlight. He had swum for hours, diving beneath the surface and looking up at the faraway sky in a muted blue world of his own.
In Cyrilia, the rivers were white and frothing and cold. Ramson struggled to keep his eyes open as the current flung him to and fro. The pressure in his chest grew. Water surged at his nose and mouth.
The Affinite girl was still bound to his chest by the rope. He could feel her thrashing against him, kicking and struggling as the current pummeled her.
Ramson severed the cord. The odds of survival were greater without someone weighing you down. He had been thinking
only of himself when he did it, but as he watched the current drag the witch away, he supposed it might have been true for her, too.
Stay still, he wanted to tell her. The more you struggle, the faster you drown.
But his own lungs were aching, and that familiar sensation of weakness was creeping into his limbs. He needed to breathe, or risk becoming a part of the current forever.
Ramson kicked out. No sooner had he righted himself than the current pushed him over again. Panic bubbled in his chest. His head felt light. Water pressed at his nose and his lips, yet part of him remembered that he could not open his mouth.
His limbs were becoming heavier. His vision was a whirl of white. It was cold.
Swim, came a voice. He knew instantly whose voice it was—that calm, thin voice that had defined his childhood and haunted him every day thereafter. Here, in the roaring chaos, it sounded so close. Swim, or we both die.
Ramson thrust his legs behind him, arching his back. He felt the current give a little. Somewhere above him, somewhere near, there was light.
The light grew brighter. He broke through the surface, coughing and gulping in lungful after lungful of fresh, wintry Cyrilian air, feeling the power return to his limbs.
He hauled himself onto the bank, digging his nails into the half-frozen dirt and dragging his feet across snow-covered grass. He was shivering uncontrollably, moving in starts and stops, his arms and legs jerking in awkward movements as he tried to stimulate his blood flow.
The river had borne them quite a distance; Ghost Falls was a faraway speck, barely larger than the size of his palm. His stomach flipped as he took in the height of the cliffs, the waterfall that was no more than a misty stretch ending in the river. No matter his calculations and the meticulous planning he’d done in the darkness of his cell; it had taken a miracle and a hand from the gods for them to have survived.
Not that Ramson believed in the gods anyway.
He turned his back to the prison. A snow-tipped forest stretched before him, illuminated in a haze of dusty gold beneath the late-afternoon sun. And in the distance, ice-capped mountains rose and fell as far as the eye could see.
But Ramson felt only the cold in his bones and saw only the shadows that stretched long and dark beneath the pine trees. This was Cyrilia, the Empire of the North, where autumn nights were colder than any winter day in the other kingdoms. And if he didn’t find shelter before the sun set, he would die.
A cough behind him made him spin around, dagger in hand. He felt a faint twinge of surprise as he caught sight of the Affinite struggling up the bank like a dying animal. She was on her hands and knees, her head drooping, her dark locks plastered to her face and dripping water. She would not stand again. Not without his help.
Ramson turned away.
The snow muffled his footsteps as he ventured into the forest, and soon the sounds of the girl spluttering and the river rushing faded into silence. The trees grew thick enough to block out the sun, and the cold pressed into him with every step he took.
He ran through the terrain around Ghost Falls in his mind, but a growing sensation of doubt began to stall his progress. He’d been brought here in cuffs and a blindfold, the wagon traveling for days before he’d been hauled out and thrown into his cell. As far as Ramson knew, the area around the prison was barren—a wasteland of ice-covered tundra and the Syvern Taiga, the forest that covered half of the Cyrilian Empire.
Somehow his thoughts were drawn back to the witch. It was a shame that their escape had weakened her so much. Whereas she might have been a useful ally with her powerful Affinity, she would only be a hindrance going forward. He doubted she’d even be able to stand, let alone make it out of the woods. But then again, he thought grimly, where would she go?
Something clicked in his mind, and he came to a sharp stop. Of course. How could he have been so stupid? He turned back and half staggered, half ran to where he had left the witch.
The girl had come to Ghost Falls just to see him. Which meant she had to have a way out. A means of transportation.
He found her crouching several feet from the river, her head bent, her arms wrapped around herself and moving stiffly as she tried to rub heat back into her body. She looked up at him with half-lidded eyes as he approached. In just minutes, the bottom of her wet locks had frozen to ice.
Ramson knelt by her side, clasping a hand around her neck and feeling for her pulse. She twitched but made no further move to resist.
“How do you feel?” Injecting concern into his tone, he took her cheeks in his hands. They were ice-cold. “Can you speak?”
She opened her chapped lips. They were tinged with blue. “Y-yes.”
“Do you feel dizzy? Drowsy?”
“N-no.” It was clearly a lie, yet as she lifted her chin stubbornly and fixed him with that glare, Ramson couldn’t help but admire her resolve.
“We need to find shelter before sunset.” Ramson darted a glance over the treetops, where the sun hung, obscured by the gray clouds and mist. “Where did you come from? How did you get here?”
His heart almost sang at that word. That meant there had to be shelter within walkable distance. He’d made the right choice, coming back for her. “From where? Is there a town nearby?”
A shake of her head. “A d-dacha. I l-live there.” “How far?”
Her body gave a spasm, and he bundled her closer to him. Their wet clothes might as well have been ice packs, but he knew the body heat would help. Her answer came in a breath that clouded in the air. “Two hours.”
Ramson glanced at the mist-covered sun that hung precariously low over the rim of the trees. For the first time, it looked like hope. He stood, adjusting his icy clothes and testing his muscles. They weren’t cramping yet, which was a good sign. “Can you walk, darling?”
The witch began to rouse herself, climbing to her feet, but almost toppled over at the effort. Ramson caught her by her elbows before she fell. “I’ve got you.” Earn her trust, reach the shelter. He hoisted her onto his back, immediately feeling the icy stiffness of her cloak. “Put your hands around my neck. The more skin contact, the less likely you’ll get hypothermia.”
She obliged, and he shifted her weight higher. Already, his blood was flowing from the strain on his muscles. That was good.
Ramson gritted his teeth. Putting one foot before the other, he began to walk. The muffled hush of the white landscape pressed on them, broken only by the crunch of snow beneath his boots and the occasional snap of a branch as he waded deeper into the forest. The witch gave him directions, her voice uneven as she trembled from cold.
Soon they were in the heart of the woods, surrounded by tall, crowding Syvern pines and frost-larches that cast their shadows over them. A hush had settled in the air. It felt as though the forest was alive and watching, the cold creeping steadily past his clothes, under his skin, into his bones.
The witch had fallen silent, her body still against his. Several times, he had to shake her to keep her conscious.
“Talk to me, darling,” he said at last. “If you fall asleep now, you’ll never wake up.” He felt her perk up a little at that. “What’s your name?”
“Anya,” she said, too quickly for it to be true.
Another lie, but Ramson pretended to nod seriously. “Anya. I’m Ramson, though you already knew that. Where are you from, Anya?”
He chuckled. “Talkative, aren’t you?” He knew the town of Dobrysk—a small, insignificant dot on the map in southern Cyrilia. Yet—despite her best efforts to mask it—she had the tinge of a northern accent in her speech, along with the faint lilt of the Cyrilian nobility. “What did you do in Dobrysk?”
He sensed her tensing up against him, and for a moment he wished he could take back his question. It had seemed like a good opportunity, in her half-frozen and semiconscious state, to find out more about her. Draw out her secrets and use them as leverage against her later. That she was an Affinite was his first—and only, for the time being—clue. Surely an Affinity as strong as hers would have merited a place among the Imperial Patrols?
The wheels in his mind turned, and he thought of the command in her tone, the judgmental look in her eyes when he’d first spoken to her, the tilt of her sharp chin. There was definitely noble upbringing in her blood—perhaps she had simply kept her Affinity hidden to protect herself. It wasn’t uncommon in Cyrilia, once a child’s Affinity manifested, for the ability to be kept hidden or subdued. That was the protection that power and privilege offered the rich. A safety, Ramson thought, that the poor simply could not afford.
Affinites without the means to bribe officials into silence were made to record it in a section of their identification papers. As legal citizens of the Empire, they were allowed to seek employment—yet the branding on their papers marked them as different, as other, as something to be steered clear of and, oftentimes, feared.
Cyrilia sought to control these beings with gods-given abilities with blackstone and Deys’voshk. As foreigners from other kingdoms began coming to Cyrilia, looking for opportunities in the richest empire of the world, merchants had quickly seen the chance to exploit them.
And then the brokers had appeared. They began to lure foreign workers into Cyrilia under false promises of better work and better pay, only to force them into unfavorable contracts and trap them in a distant empire with no way out. In time, the practice of Affinite trafficking had thrived, in the shadows of the laws.
Nobility or not, this girl was an Affinite, and on the run.
And Ramson wanted nothing to do with that. It was simply easier to look the other way.
In any case, this girl had something to hide. And if Ramson had one skill, it was to root out secrets, no matter how deeply buried.
Her stubborn silence was dragging on, so he reverted to a relatively innocuous question: “Does sunwine really taste better down south?”
They went on like that, Ramson talking and eliciting one- or two-word responses from the girl. Despite the chatter he kept up, he could feel his hands and feet turning numb and his muscles growing weary. Darkness had steadily crept in around them, and Ramson had to blink to make out which were the trees and which were the shadows.
Time seemed to go in circles, and he began to wonder whether he was going in circles himself. The unbearable cold was addling his brain; he kept looking over his shoulder, imagining the occasional crackle of a branch or crunch of snow. The Cyrilian Empire housed different dangers than those of his homeland; he’d heard of ice spirits—syvint’sya—that rose from the snows, so that lost travelers were discovered years later beneath the permafrost. Icewolves that sprang from thin air and hunted in packs. Ramson had never traveled without a globefire that burned steadily through the night to ward off the creatures of the Syvern Taiga. Now the darkness seemed to press against him.
Ramson stopped. His heart pounded in his ears . . . but there was something else. He listened, his palms feeling empty without the reassuring warmth of a globefire ball resting in them and lighting the way. The dark tended to yield to darker thoughts.
And then he heard it, that snap-snap-snap of twigs and the rustle of the underbrush, several dozen paces behind him.
Someone—or something—was following them.
Fear pricked at him. Ramson ducked behind the nearest tree, and after rebalancing the witch on his back, he stilled and strained to listen over the hammering of his own heart.
There. Rustling and crackling approached, as though something large was moving through the trees. Holding his breath, he dared a look from behind the tree and felt his legs turn to cotton.
An enormous dark shape lumbered by, so close that its musty wet-animal scent wafted past him. It paused to sniff the air and let out a deep-throated growl. As it turned its head to scan the periphery, Ramson’s heart sank. He recognized the massive body, the pale face, the glinting white eyes. A moonbear. The fearsome predator of the northern Empire was but a whisper on hunters’ lips, a prayer that they themselves would never meet one.
Ramson’s mind kicked into action. The moonbear relied on its eyesight and sense of hearing to hunt, which meant that as long as he remained quiet and out of sight, he had a chance at survival. Yet there was no way he could wait it out; they would freeze to death.
He felt the witch’s body slipping on his back. An idea came to mind—one so ugly that he was ashamed of it, but he considered it all the same. If he threw the girl to the bear and ran, would he make it? She was already unconscious, and it was unlikely she would recover unless they reached somewhere warm soon. A part of him almost let out a half sob, half laugh, as he thought inevitably of the popular Cyrilian joke. He was, literally, caught between the Bear and the Fool.
The moonbear raised its shaggy head, its huge body coming to a standstill. It cocked its ears.
And turned toward them.
Ramson caught the tomb-white flash of its eyes and the slice of its fangs in the night. Despite the shaking in his legs, he crouched into a defensive stance. His dagger appeared in his free hand.
There was no chance in hell he would win a fight like this, cold and cramped and weighed down by an unconscious girl. Yet despite what he was—despite all the lives he had ruined and everything he had done—Ramson knew he could not live with himself if he didn’t at least try.
A dozen paces away, the bushes rattled suddenly, as though a startled animal had darted into them. Ramson froze.
The moonbear’s attention shifted. Its head, larger than a man’s torso, slowly swiveled.
The bushes shook again. Something shot out, heading in the opposite direction. Ramson could hear the creature clumsily snapping twigs and rustling past bushes in its way.
The moonbear gave a low growl. It swung its gigantic body around and lumbered off toward the noise without another glance back.
Ramson waited for the sound of crashing and grunting to disappear before loosing a breath. He leaned against the tree, shifting the Affinite girl’s weight between his shoulders. Night had fallen, their shelter was nowhere in sight.
A twig snapped behind him. Ramson turned, his grip tightening on his dagger. And stared.
There was a silhouette standing next to the tree, outlined against the snow and moon. No, not a silhouette—a child. She raised a hand and beckoned at them.
Ramson followed. If he was going to defend himself, he figured his chances were better with a child barely half his size than with the moonbear.
The trek seemed to take forever and Ramson found himself stumbling more and more as his fatigue became increasingly unbearable. The little girl weaved through the shadows like a spirit of the forest.
Another few dozen steps passed. The snow seemed to grow silver, and the trees became solid outlines again. Light, Ramson realized. There was light coming from somewhere close.
Gradually, the forest parted to reveal a small wooden dacha tucked in a ring of trees. Light from one window spilled onto the untouched snow, and Ramson’s knees almost buckled with relief.
Ahead of him, the child pushed open the thin wooden door and slipped inside.
A fire crackled in the hearth, and heat enveloped him like a mother’s embrace. Ramson groaned as he set the witch down on the floor in front of the fire and proceeded to remove the ice-cold clothes on his back. His fingers slipped at the buttons, and he could barely summon enough energy to peel off his shirt. He fell to the ground in a half-naked heap, soaking up the warmth of the dry wooden floor.
He never wanted to get up again, never wanted to move another muscle. But eventually, he heard rustlings and small, light footsteps. Ramson opened an eye.
The child was crouched by the witch, her hands fluttering across the Affinite’s body like a pair of nervous birds. He observed her dark hair that fell soft over her shoulders, the brilliant turquoise of her eyes—a color that reminded him of warm, southern seas.
A child of one of the Aseatic Kingdoms, Ramson thought, an odd chord of sympathy ringing in him. He’d been around her age—perhaps a few years older—when he’d first arrived on Cyrilian shores, starving, frightened, and utterly lost.
Yet a growing sense of foreboding made his skin crawl the longer he looked at her. As Portmaster of the largest trading post in Cyrilia, he could think of a more sinister reason for a child from a foreign kingdom to be here alone. The Aseatic region, in particular, was known for its large number of migrants looking for work opportunities in other kingdoms—especially the ruthlessly commerce-driven Empire of Cyrilia. Ramson had seen the ghost ships dock at his harbor on moonless nights, watched the figures—men, women, and children—steal through the shadows.
The Affinites would become phantoms in this foreign empire, with no identity, no home, and no one to turn to, their pleas washed away by the drag of waves beneath a cruel moon.
Ramson, too, had turned away.
The child pressed two fingers to the witch’s neck. Worry rippled across her features.
Ramson took a deep breath. “Is she alive?” His voice scratched.
The tender concern shaping the child’s features vanished in an instant, as though someone had shut a book. She glared at him in a remarkably similar fashion to the witch, her small mouth puckering.
Ramson tried again. “Who are you? How did you find us?” Her eyes narrowed to slits. Ramson couldn’t fathom how this diminutive person could look even fiercer than the witch.
“Who are you?” she shot back. “I’m a friend.”
“You’re lying. Ana and I don’t have any other friends. But it’s all right,” she added smugly. “If you’re bad, I’ll kill you.”
Ramson sighed. What was it with him and meeting murderous females today? “Look,” he said. “She’s shivering. It’s a good sign. We need to get her warmed up slowly.” He assessed the room. There was a plank of a bed pushed against the far wall, one corner of it stacked with blankets. The hearth sat across from it, fire crackling merrily in the small room. Next to the door was an old wooden table strewn with parchments and pens. “Get her some blankets and dry clothes, and let’s put her by the fire. I think she’s just half-asleep. Warm some bathwater for her.”
The child assessed him for a few moments more, like a cat deciding whether to attack him or trust him. Eventually, she decided on the latter, and plodded off toward the wash closet in the back of the room. He heard the sound of water splashing.
And that left him with . . . only one task.
Groaning, Ramson forced himself to his knees, to his feet. He bent down and, with back-popping effort, lifted the witch into his arms. He was shaking as he crossed the room in several strides, nudging open the door to the small washroom. A lone candle burned inside, illuminating the damp wooden tub.
Gently, he lowered the girl inside. She murmured something and shivered when he moved away. He frowned as he brushed aside a lock of her dark hair, casting a suspicious glance at the sharp lines of her cheekbones and the bold dash of her mouth against her skin. She resembled the tawny-skinned Southern Cyrilians who dwelled in the Dzhyvekha Mountains on the borders of the Cyrilian Empire and the Nandjian Crown. A minority among the predominantly fair Northern Cyrilians that held most of the power and privilege across the Empire.
And . . . he had the strangest feeling that he’d . . . seen her somewhere before.
He shook his head. The cold was getting to him.
He left her with the Aseatic child and five pails of lukewarm water. He leaned against the locked door, listening to the sounds of splashing and silence. Like water, his thoughts swirled in.
Why had he saved her from the moonbear, even when she was half-frozen and useless and a deadweight to him? The Ramson Quicktongue he knew—the one the entire criminal network was wary of—kept only the strong and the useful by his side; the weak were quickly discarded or sacrificed. Yet in the darkness and loneliness of the snow-covered Cyrilian forest, the cold had changed him, squeezing all logical calculation from him until he was nothing but raw instinct.
And instinct had guided his actions tonight.
He squeezed his eyes shut. He thought he had snuffed out that small sliver of goodness within him seven years ago. He’d sworn to himself that he would never be one of the weak again, that he would never give more than he took.
He drew in a deep breath. Opened his eyes. The room came back in crystal-clear view.
He had helped the witch this far. He had given. Now it was his time to take.
Ana had almost drowned twice in her life.
The first time was ten years ago, on the cusp of winter. The snow had painted the world a glittering sprawl of white, sprinkled with the ruby reds and emerald greens and sapphire blues of the Salskoff Winter Market. Ornaments winked silver and gold like small ice spirits as the Imperial family passed by on their annual city Parade to welcome the arrival of their Patron Deity. Tambourines jingled, music played, people whirled around outside in flurries of white gauze and silver sash.
The excitement had even diminished the headache that had kept Ana in bed for the past few days. She held Luka’s hand as they waited for their carriage to stop, for the walk through the near-fairy-tale town, heralded and beloved and showered with gifts by the citizens of their empire.
Yet as the doors opened and the smells of roast meats and spiced vegetables and baked fish rolled in, Ana felt a wave of nausea. There was something writhing beneath all the noise from the crowds, the colored ornaments and furs and jewels clasped around people’s throats, the scents and sights. It pounded at her head, throbbed at her temples.
She distinctly remembered the pot of beet soup, thick and bubbling and so vividly red.
And then that thrumming energy within her exploded, a sharp crimson that drenched every corner of her vision, rushing through her veins. The hot, pulsing beat of blood swept into her world, drowning out all else.
She only remembered the aftermath. The bodies in front of her carriage, twisted on the cobblestones; the red, blooming like poppy blossoms on a canvas of colorless snow.
Ana had killed eight people that day.
The Palace alchemist, a strange bald man with overly large eyes and a quiet demeanor, had diagnosed her that very evening. She remembered the cold glint of his silver Deys’krug as he raised a trembling hand to whisper in the Emperor’s ear.
An Affinite, he’d told Papa. A blood Affinite.
Papa had bowed his head, and Ana’s world had crumbled.
In a window across her room, she’d seen her reflection. Face still streaked with blood and tears from the market, her hair crusted with sweat and half-covering her eyes—her monstrous red eyes. Her arms had been heavy, the skin stretched taut over swollen, jagged veins.
That day, Ana had looked in the mirror and seen a monster.
She’d tried to run after that. Past the maids who screamed at her approach; past the guards who stepped aside, bewildered and at a loss for what to do. She hadn’t known where she was going; all she’d known was that she had to get away, away from the Palace, away from Mama and Papa and Luka and mamika Morganya, so that she couldn’t hurt them.
The Kateryanna Bridge had loomed out of the blur of her tears, statues of Deities watching over her like sentient guardians. The bridge was named after Mama, and Ana watched it every day from the windows of her chambers, roping over the icy Tiger’s Tail river that wound around the Palace.
It was a sign. It had to be.
Tears streaked Ana’s face as she lifted her gaze to the sky. I love you, Mama, she thought. Carry me somewhere safe.
Ana climbed over the stone handrail and hurled herself into the river.
The cold jarred her bones as soon as she hit the water, and the ruthless current pulled her under. Immediately, she realized that any hopes she had of being borne to distant lands by the river’s waters had been foolish. The water frothed around her, pummeling her in a way that aroused a different type of terror within her: uncontrollable and tumultuous. Instinctively, she opened her mouth to scream—but water rushed in, squeezing the air from her lungs.
Panic whitened her mind, and spots bloomed before her eyes even as she fought against the water.
She hadn’t wanted to die. But perhaps the Deities meant to claim her today after all.
Something gripped her across her midriff—something different from the pressure on her chest and the cold in her lungs. The world spun in a whirl of white-ice currents and mute chaos, but she realized that the current was no longer carrying her. She was being dragged up, up, and into the light.
She burst through the surface, her lungs gasping in sweet, precious breaths of air. Her limbs drifted weakly in the violent waters, but there was a firm arm around her chest and someone was pulling her toward shore with fluid, practiced strokes.
Her savior struggled at the bank and, at last, deposited her on the ice-covered ground that stretched for miles around.
Ana’s blood froze as she found herself looking into her brother’s eyes—eyes that burned with rage. All traces of earlier mirth had disappeared from Luka’s face—and she thought she saw a trace of the prince, the future Emperor Lukas Aleksander Mikhailov.
Her brother was panting, his hair plastered to his forehead and curling at the nape of his neck. Breath plumed from his lips, pale with cold. “Brat,” he snarled, and slammed his fist into the frozen ground so hard that it cracked. “What the hell were you thinking?” His tone lashed across her sharper than the bite of a whip, and she flinched. Her brother—kind, gentle Luka—had never yelled at her like this.
She thought of the eight dead bodies blooming red in the Vyntr’makt and lowered her gaze. “I’m a monster,” she mumbled, her lips numb.
Luka hunched over her, his weight propped up by his elbows. His shoulders shook, and when he lifted his gaze to hers, he was crying. In a sudden motion, he pulled her into his arms and hugged her tight. “Don’t ever scare me like that again. You could’ve died.”
The maelstrom of her thoughts cleared, leaving only one: the realization that Luka was afraid she’d almost died. He hadn’t . . . he hadn’t wanted her to die.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice was high and broken. “I— The
“Hush,” Luka whispered, cradling her. “It’s not your fault.”
It’s not your fault.
She let herself go then, the torrent of grief and guilt and helplessness, and for a few moments, his arms held her together and his words were her salvation.
When he pulled back, his eyes—she’d always thought of them as the grasses that bloomed in the Palace gardens each spring—had hardened with resolve, a burning fire, as he cupped her face with his hands. “You are not a monster, sistrika.”
A flash of the alchemist’s silver Deys’krug. Papa’s bowed head.
The response sprang to her lips. An Affinite. The alchemist whispered. A blood Affinite.
“Your Affinity does not define you.” His gaze seared into hers; his words cut like metal striking stone. “What defines you is how you choose to wield it. You just need someone to teach you to control it.”
She loved the way he said those things—you are not a monster; you just need someone to teach you to control it—as though they were simple truths. It was as though he believed them, and she could start to as well. “Like Yuri?” she asked, thinking of her friend, a fire Affinite several years older than she, who worked in the Palace kitchens as an apprentice to the master chef. His Affinity made him valuable.
“Right. Like Yuri.” Luka pushed himself to his feet and hauled her up. They were on the bank of the river right beneath the walls of the Palace, an abandoned stretch of land. The river had borne them to the back of the Salskoff Palace; straight across from them, the Syvern Taiga began in a line of winter-colored pines.
Luka took her hand and turned away from the direction of the bridge.
“What should we do?” Dread bloomed in her as she thought of returning to the Palace, of facing her father and the reality of what she had done.
But her brother’s grip tightened and he brought her fingers to his lips, kissing her bloodstained nails. His brows were creased, his eyes stormy yet gentle at once. “We’ll go back through a secret passageway Markov showed me. You’ll wash off in your chambers. The truth of the incident at the Vyntr’makt was lost in the crowds and the confusion. No one has to know.” His jaw set and he lifted his chin slightly, in that stubborn way she knew so well. “I’ll speak to Papa. I’ll tell him that you need a tutor, like the ones that teach the Affinites employed at the Palace to hone their Affinities.”
Yet that night, Papa had come to her chambers, his brows creased. He oftentimes came with Mama to tuck her into bed, but this time, he’d stood at the foot of her bed, the distance between them stretching an ocean.
Quietly, he’d told her that she would have to stay indoors for a while—at least until her “condition” was gone. The official story to the outside world was that the Princess was sick, and her frail health had to be preserved within the walls of the Palace.
Ana had fallen to her knees, reaching for him—and he had remained where he was, his face carved of ice. It had broken her a little more. “Please,” she’d whispered. “It won’t happen again. I’ll never use my . . . my Affinity. I’ll be your good daughter.”
Papa’s eyes had clouded. “It . . . isn’t acceptable for you to be an Affinite,” he’d said. “Especially considering your particular Affinity It mustn’t be known widely, nor registered on your papers. We will take measures to cure your condition. It is . . . for your own good.”
Ana clung to that tiniest sliver of hope. Perhaps, if she was cured, Papa would love her again.
Within a moon, Papa had hired a tutor to “cure” Ana of her Affinity. Konsultant Imperator Sadov, they called him, and from the moment Ana met him, she knew he was made of nothing but nightmares. He seemed to grow out of the shadows: a silhouette stretched tall and slim, with hair and eyes as dark as blackstone, and fingers long and sickly white. His cure centered on the theory that fear and poison would wash the Affinity from her.
And so Ana’s world had shrunk to the corners of the Palace and the depths of the dungeons, where the blackstone walls sucked all light and warmth from the air, and the darkness pressed against her like a living thing.
“Most Affinities manifest slowly, as an awareness to the elements of one’s Affinity,” Sadov had said, his voice smooth and cold as silk. “But yours exploded, completely out of your control. Do you know why that is?”
Ana shivered. “Why, Konsultant Imperator?”
“Because you control blood.” He touched a finger to her chin, and it took all her willpower not to shrink back. “Because you are a monster.”
By that time, Mama had fallen sick, and within a year of the Vyntr’makt incident, she passed away. The Palace courtiers had whispered that it had been a mistake for the Emperor to take a wife of one of the southern ethnicities of Cyrilia; something about her tawny skin and dark hair made her different. Something that her offspring had inherited. There had already been veiled murmurs of the Prince and Princess’s distinctly southern looks, which stood out among the pale-faced, fair- haired Northern Cyrilians who dominated the ruling classes of Cyrilia. With Mama’s death and Ana’s confinement, the rumors grew louder.
Humans, it seemed, tended to fear things that were different.
Yet it was her brother’s words on that terrible day that stayed with Ana throughout those long years, in the stretches of darkness and loneliness, during Sadov’s worst rages and Papa’s callous coldness.
Your Affinity does not define you.
The bitter taste of Deys’voshk, burning her throat and twisting her stomach.
What defines you is how you choose to wield it.
The nauseating fear, the cold of the blackstone, the blood pulsing through the small rabbits Sadov used to test her abilities, which never diminished in the ten years after.
You are not a monster, sistrika.
She had so, so desperately wanted to believe that.
Perhaps the Deities had willed for her to live after all—and if not the Deities, then Ana had willed herself to live.
It was this thought that she clung to now, half-frozen and
half-dead from the battering current of the Ghost Falls river. This, and the memory of her brother, like a steady, unwavering flame in her heart, guiding her onward.
For there was a reason for her to live, Ana realized, as she began to surface through the bouts of sleep and groggy
wakefulness that claimed her in turn. Her thoughts rose through the darkness and the cold, stubbornly, willfully, as she had that day from the icy depths of the river.
Yes, there was a reason for her to live. And that was to find Papa’s murderer.
The second time Ana had almost drowned, it had been beneath a bone-white moon—not unlike the one that hung above the Syvern Taiga tonight—that had carved the world in monochrome. The winter night of eleven moons past had been cast in the color of death. She had walked into her father’s chambers to see him convulsing, his face leached of color, his eyes rolling into his head, the poison and the blood roaring through him like the distorted screaming of a river. She had seen his murderer, dressed in white prayer robes, bent over her papa and tipping the vial of poison.
She’d caught sight of the man’s face in the moments before he ran: a peculiar yet familiar face, like that of a dead man, with bulging eyes and a bald head. In the moonlight, his Deys’krug had cut silver like a scythe. The Palace alchemist.
Alchemist. Murderer. Traitor.
He was the reason she had been arrested that night. She had been found long after he had run, still clinging to Papa’s body, covered in his blood—the poisoned blood she’d tried to pull from his body to save him. In the end, she’d lost control of her Affinity, and Papa had still died, right in front of her.
And she should have died, too, accused of murdering the Emperor and of being a traitor to the Crown. Curled against the cold bars of the Palace dungeons that night, her father’s blood still staining her hands, she’d never wished more that she did not exist, that she never had.
Because you are a monster.
And yet again, on that night, fate, or the Deities, or whatever perverse dictator of the courses of lives, decided to spare her. She’d woken to the rattle of keys and the creak of her cell door opening. A weathered face out of the darkness with eyes the gray of clouds, and salt-and-pepper hair.
“I’ve followed you since the day you were born, so don’t ask me to stand aside and just watch as you die,” Markov had told her.
“It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me,” she’d babbled, clutching at him and sinking to her knees.
Markov’s face softened. “I believe you. Take the tunnel and run, Princess. I’ll tell them you escaped when I was escorting you here, and that you drowned in the Tiger’s Tail.” He stroked her tears away with his callused thumbs. “Run, and live.”
Live. That felt like an impossible task.
But Ana shut her eyes, and that face came to her again: moon-pale, with owlishly large eyes. The alchemist, who’d left the Palace so many years ago, after her diagnosis. It had seemed like a dream—no, a nightmare—to see him there again, a ghost of the past.
But a ghost was all the reason she had left to live. That alchemist was the reason she’d run through that secret passageway in the dungeons that night and thrown herself into the Tiger’s Tail for the second time in her life; the reason she’d crawled onto the shore of the Syvern Taiga, half-frozen on the outside and dead on the inside, waiting for the Deities to claim her. Yet he was also why she’d stood again that night, staring at the Palace and the Kateryanna Bridge in the distance and vowing that she would return only when she had found him.
Yes, she did have a reason to live after all these long years, Ana realized suddenly, her thoughts sharpening into lucidity. She lived to find the owner of that face, to hunt down the person who had murdered her father and diagnosed her with this evil affliction, sealing her fate for ten years past. She lived to redeem herself, to prove that, beyond the monstrosity of her power, she could be good.
I will find you, alchemist, she thought over and over again, like a vow. I will find you.
Ana woke with a start and the ghost of a face scattering from her dreams. It took her several moments to grasp her surroundings: the crackle of a fire burning low in the hearth, the musty smell of old pinewood floors, and the scratch of a coarse cloth pillow beneath her cheek.
She remembered flashes of the evening—the cold, the dark, the scent and silver of snow, a warm bathtub. She’d made it. She’d made it back to the dacha.
Ana clutched the ragged fur blanket tighter, surprise twanging in her stomach. How had she gotten back? She remembered the fall into the river, the feeling of utter helplessness beneath the battering current, and then crawling onto an empty, frozen shore. Her clothes had been colder than ice, and she’d barely been able to move.
Can you walk, darling?
Ana blinked. The voice had come out of nowhere—out of a foggy, distant memory. There had been a forest, an ounce of warmth, and that voice had constantly, irritably dragged her from the comfort of slumber.
Fear seized her. Now she recognized the symptoms of near-hypothermia she’d been experiencing, and how close to death she’d been. That warm darkness had been a menace . . . and the voice had saved her.
Ramson Quicktongue, she thought, her sleep-addled brain suddenly alert as she scanned the cabin. Everything was just as she’d left it. Her rucksack leaned against the wall, her belongings spread out across the small worktable. No sign of a disturbance; no sign of any intruders.
Ana loosed a breath and pushed herself into a sitting position. Someone had washed the blood off her arm, but the wound was still raw and fresh. She remembered now, a little girl with dark hair, the edges softened by the glow of candles, almost like a halo.
“May?” she called softly. The cabin was utterly still. She leaned back against the wall, trying to quell her anxiety. The con man was nowhere to be seen, either. The remnants of the Deys’voshk were still in her system; she could feel her Affinity beginning to return, drifting in and out of her reach. Trying to use it now was like trying to set fire to wet kindling.
From the wash closet door in the far corner came the sound of splashing water. The movements were too careless for May. A masculine cough confirmed her suspicions.
The con man was still here.
Ana gritted her teeth against a groan of frustration. She’d spent months searching for this man. She’d pinned all her hopes—and more—on him. And he’d fooled her, and admitted he didn’t even have a clue who her alchemist was.
And now she was stuck with him.
The door to the hut creaked open. Her thoughts scattered as a child struggled in with a pail of fresh snow. As soon as May caught sight of Ana, her eyes widened and she dropped the pail, bounding to Ana’s side.
Ana sighed in relief as she buried herself in May’s embrace. “Hey, you,” she murmured. Being with May always, in some ways, felt like being at home.
The darkness in the boreal forest had been absolute the night Ana had run into the Syvern Taiga, though it had been nothing compared to the shadows in her heart. But May had found her and brought her to shelter by the soft glow of a globefire. May had been bound by a contract then, but it hadn’t stopped her from trying to save Ana, unbeknownst to her employer.
May straightened and fixed Ana with a stern gaze. Her eyes were the startling aquamarine of the ocean waters of the Aseatic Isles that Ana had once seen in a painting, sun-kissed and warm. Ana touched her forehead briefly to the child’s, her lips tugging into a smile.
“Did you get the alchemist?” May demanded. Eleven moons ago, when they’d first met, she’d been much quieter, her words a featherlight whisper. Only her quick eyes had told Ana that she drank in the world and gathered it in her heart, and gave back with kindness that had never been shown to her.
“Almost.” Seeing May always cleared her mind and calmed her nerves, and the word nearly felt real. “Were you all right by yourself?”
May nodded, and a copperstone appeared in her hands. “I have three cop’stones left. Do you want them back?” The copperstone caught the shine of the firelight, a small leaf engraved in the center of the coin.
Ana hesitated. She knew what these coins meant to May, who had spent her life accumulating meager sums of money to pay off the impossible amount of the contract she’d been made to sign. In the past, Ana might have spent dozens of cop’stones on a piece of ptychy’moloko milk cake, coins flowing through her fingers like water without a care as to their value.
Meeting May had changed that.
Ana gently curled a hand around May’s, tucking the coin back into the girl’s fist. “We earned this together. Keep it, and let’s buy ourselves a treat at the next town.”
May slipped the coin carefully back into her tunic. “Do you think we’ll find Ma-ma at the next town?” she asked.
Ana paused, studying May’s face carefully, but the child’s hopeful gaze didn’t waver. It haunted Ana that this girl loved so easily after what she’d been through. Over time, Ana had pieced together the child’s story: a long journey from the Chi’gon Kingdom, her home in the Aseatic region, with her mother in search of a brighter future, only to find those dreams shattered and her mother sent away by a separate contract.
And May had been exploited for her earth Affinity and stuck with a debt that kept growing.
With every day, the realization had grown louder and louder in Ana’s head: That could have been me.
“We will,” Ana replied. “We’ll find your ma-ma even if I have to knock on every single door of this empire.”
May’s smile stretched, and she threw her arms around Ana, burying her face against Ana’s shirt. “You won’t leave again, right?” Her voice came out muffled, and when Ana looked down, she caught a pair of bright ocean eyes peering up at her shyly. “Don’t go where I can’t follow.”
A knot formed in Ana’s throat. She knew the ache of having lost a mother at such a young age. The feeling that you had done something wrong, that you could be abandoned by those you loved all over again, never went away.
So Ana squeezed May tight in her arms and whispered, “I’m always here.”
The sound of splashing water drew both of their attention to the wash closet.
May’s eyes narrowed. “That strange man brought you home, and because he sort of saved your life, I told him he could have a warm bath before leaving,” she said.
Ana felt her lips curling despite herself. “Smart girl,” she said conspiratorially.
“He was smelly. And dirty.”
“I know,” Ana said. “He’s disgusting and stupid and ugly.” It was immature, but it felt good to say anyway.
The wash closet door flew open.
In a flash, Ana heaved herself from the bed and shoved May behind her. Her injured arm throbbed at the sudden motion, but all of her attention was focused on Ramson Quicktongue.
He had shaved and cleaned the grime from his face. Now she could see that he was much younger than she had guessed— perhaps only a few years older than she. His tousled sandy hair curled on his forehead, droplets of water carving a path down his chiseled cheeks. The contrast from his filthy, unkempt state earlier made him appear startlingly handsome—the type of roguish good-looking face more befitting a Bregonian marine or Cyrilian Imperial Patrol than a shady underground crook.
Quicktongue shot a smile at May. Ana imagined it had fangs. “Hello, sweetheart.”
“Don’t talk to her,” Ana snarled. She turned and said quickly, “May, please go and take a bath.”
The child grabbed the pail of snow and slipped into the wash closet. She turned and, glaring at Ramson, drew a finger across her neck before slamming the door shut. A satisfying click sounded as the door closed, and Ana’s heart settled.
She rounded on Quicktongue.
He was bruising; on his wrists where the sleeves of his tunic ended, angry red patches bloomed from where she had broken blood vessels. Guilt churned in her stomach, but she pushed it down. He hadn’t hesitated to use and betray her. Guilt was an emotion wasted on this kind of a man.
Quicktongue’s mouth quirked into a smile that was both devious and charming at once. “Well, Ana, love,” he said, and her insides turned cold. “Here we are. You asked for my aid, and I asked for a way out of Ghost Falls. If only wishes came true every day.”
Ana bit back a sharp retort. This wasn’t some argument she was having with Luka or Yuri. This was a calculated stance against an enemy. There was no telling what he was planning and what he was hiding from her—even his accent, she noticed, had shifted slightly from last night. She had to tread very carefully.
“I’ve delivered my end of the bargain,” she said instead. “Now it’s your turn.” She clamped down on the urge to remind him of her Affinity, just to prove that she could hurt him if she wanted to. That she still held some shred of power over him. That her plan hadn’t all gone to . . . nothing. “I don’t care if you don’t have a clue who he is or where he is. You’re going to help me find the alchemist, and you’re going to do it in two weeks. I’ve heard enough of your reputation, and I know you’re capable of it.”
He had to be. All other searches, paid bounty hunters or trackers, had led to dead ends. Ramson Quicktongue was her last chance.
Ana didn’t say that.
Quicktongue raised his brows. “You’ve heard enough of my reputation,” he repeated, as though savoring the words on his tongue. He almost looked pleased, but then his eyes narrowed. “And what makes you think I’ll help you, now that I’m free as a bird?”
Conniving, backstabbing con man. If he wanted to play dirty, so be it.
She could threaten him. The thought had been lingering in her mind for a while: an ugly, twisted thing she hadn’t wanted to bring into the light.
Show him what you can do, my little monster.
“You remember what I did in the prison?” The memory of crimson pooling across white marble halls flashed across her mind. It sickened her to bring it up, but she pressed on. “I could do the same to you.” She took a step closer, exhilaration pushing her forward, the thrill of danger drawing her toward him. “Can you imagine how it would feel to die with blood leaking from you, drop by drop?”
“I’ll admit, that hurt.” He wet his lips. “But there are worse things to fear in life. Whatever torture you’re thinking of, I’ve probably been through it. I suppose that makes it extremely difficult to threaten me, doesn’t it?”
Ana drew a tight breath. He was bluffing—he had to be. And he was challenging her to call his bluff. His eyes crinkled as he watched her, waiting for her response. Those eyes were cunning eyes, quick and intelligent . . . but they weren’t coward’s eyes. They held no fear.
He would learn to fear her. Just like everybody else did. Ana shot him her most feral grin. Her Affinity stirred.
Against the remnants of the Deys’voshk, it was still weak, but growing stronger. “So many others sang the same tune at first. I had them groveling at my feet within minutes.”
“You sound like you have experience.”
“You know nothing of what I’ve been through. I’m going to ask you one more time, and I hope for your sake you’ll give the right answer. Will you help me find my alchemist?”
Ana blinked. The sinister thoughts, the twisted memories, and the pull of her Affinity dissolved. All that was left was the crackling of fire in the hearth, the splashing sounds from the wash closet, and a child’s muffled humming.
“You look startled.” Ramson Quicktongue raised his eye- brows.
If she had gotten her way, why did it feel like he’d won? Ana crossed her arms, her brain whirring even as she spoke. What had she missed? “I don’t believe you.” What are you playing at?
“A wise decision. I’m a businessman, after all.” His gaze
sharpened. “I never give anything without asking for something in return.”
Anger rose in her, sharp and hot. “In return? I broke you out of that prison. I saved you from rotting in that cell. You owe me.”
“I didn’t ask you to free me. I suggested an exchange, but we agreed to nothing.” Quicktongue spoke conversationally, as
though they were bartering over the price of beets at a marketplace.
Ana was bargaining for her life.
“So, I don’t owe you anything, Witch,” he continued, picking at a fingernail. “But I’d be willing to speak the language of deals.”
Her voice came out in a snarl. “You think you’re in a position to ask for something?”
“Oh, I do. You’ve been threatening me with torture for the past few minutes. If you actually wanted to do it, you would’ve done it already. Clearly, you need me. So let’s stop dancing around the topic and get to the bargain, shall we?”
He had called her bluff. Ana’s heart hammered as she stared back at the con man, refusing to break eye contact first. Papa had always taught her that strong eye contact was a show of confidence. But even as she scrambled for a response, she found her confidence waning.
Brat. She heard her brother’s voice in her head, saw the glint of intelligence in his eyes as he leaned over their game of chess. Think.
Luka had told her that a negotiation was like a game of chess. To succeed, one had to consider the endgame above all else. It had seemed like such an obvious lesson at the time, but Ana found herself clutching it tightly to her now. Her goal— her endgame—was to get him to find the alchemist, the true murderer. And now the con man wanted something more from her in return.
Why not? After all, what more did she have to lose?
Perhaps not every move needed to be a triumphant one, as long as she was moving toward her endgame.
“What is it that you want?” she asked, lifting her chin. This way, it was easy to pretend that she was a princess granting a favor, not a nobody begging for help.
“Revenge,” said the con man.
“And you think I can help you achieve that?”
“Perhaps. You are, after all, threatening me with your power over my mortal being.”
Of course—of course he wanted to use her for her Affinity. Ana narrowed her eyes. Luka’s voice whispered to her, gently pushing her on. Be specific. Flesh out the details. “Tell me what your revenge scheme entails. And be specific.”
Quicktongue’s smile widened as though he found something delightful in her response. “All right, I’ll be specific. I plan to destroy my enemies one by one and take back my position and what was rightfully mine. For that, I’ll need an ally. Someone powerful. And by the Deities”—he gave her a look that was somehow both caressing and calculating at the same time— “you must be the most powerful flesh Affinite I’ve ever seen.”
Flesh Affinite. Ana almost let out a breath in relief. Flesh, not blood. She’d kept her secret well, and it was imperative that Ramson Quicktongue continue to think she was a flesh Affinite. Because while there were hundreds of flesh Affinites, working as butchers or soldiers or guards, there was only one Blood Witch of Salskoff.
Ramson Quicktongue was not as smart as he thought he was. “I won’t kill anyone for you, if that’s what you want.”
“Kill? I never said ‘kill.’ I said ‘destroy.’ There are many ways to destroy a man besides taking his life.”
The bartenders and bounty hunters had described Ramson
Quicktongue as cunning and ruthless. She hadn’t understood them until now.
Ana steeled her nerves. She dictated the terms, not him.
And she would never choose to harm innocent people.
Really, now? Sadov whispered in her head. Little monster, do you think yourself so righteous? Do you really think you’re above this con man, when you have so much blood on your hands—
“No torture,” Ana said loudly. “No killing. I am to decide how to use my Affinity in our alliance. I’ll ensure that no harm comes to you, and that you can dispatch your enemies as you wish. If you agree to those terms, I’ll pledge my alliance to you for two weeks. After you’ve found my alchemist.”
He narrowed his eyes, tapping a finger on his chin thoughtfully. “Three weeks,” he said. “And in return, I want three weeks to find your alchemist as well.”
“We agreed on two.”
“I never agreed; I considered.”
“Don’t get caught up in the technicalities.”
“Don’t be stubborn. We both know that you need me, and I need you. That’s why we’re still here, talking to each other in a civil fashion. Three weeks, Witch—that’s only fair. Look, I’ll make a Trade with you, to show you my goodwill.”
He sounded sincere, which made her even warier. “A what?” “A Trade. A con man’s promise.”
“You realize you just contradicted yourself, don’t you?”
The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Believe it or not, there is a code of honor among the thieves of the underworld. The Trade. It’s a contract of a mutually beneficial exchange. Think of it more as a . . . a type of currency, for us. Once you invoke the Trade, there’s no reneging—otherwise, you face dire consequences.”
“Why does that matter? You’ll face dire consequences if you renege on your offer, Trade or no Trade.”
The con man sighed. “Look. I’ll find your alchemist,” he said, and Ana felt hope rustle its wings inside her. “I’ll do it in three weeks. I could track jetsam back to its ship if I wished. And in return, you’ll pledge your allegiance to me for three weeks.”
It sounded straightforward enough. “All right,” Ana said. Her mind was working fast, searching the agreement for holes, buttoning up the last of the terms. “So you agree to my terms?”
Ramson Quicktongue looked at her in that calculating, inscrutable way of his—yet Ana sensed something else in his
gaze. Something like . . . curiosity.
“Very well,” he said at last, and pushed himself off the wall, tossing his washcloth on the floor. “I agree to your terms. Six weeks together, during which I keep my nose out of your business and you keep your nose out of mine. You’ll have your revenge, I’ll have mine, and we’ll part ways with nothing but fond memories of each other.” He spread his arms. “What do you say, Witch? Trade up?”
Her head was light with elation and disbelief. It felt as though a huge weight had lifted from her chest.
She had survived a jailbreak from one of the most secure prisons in the Empire and had gotten one of the most infamous crooks in the Cyrilian Empire to agree to a bargain on her terms. And, most important, within three weeks’ time, she would have the true murderer of that unforgettable night.
It had taken her nearly an entire year to get here. Several moons to crawl out of the black hole that Papa’s death had left in her heart; several more wasted on bounty hunters and trackers that went nowhere; a few more to find Quicktongue and form a plan to enter Ghost Falls.
She was close. So close.
Almost a year ago, Papa had been murdered, and everything in her life had fallen apart. And, in three weeks, she would be on her way back to Salskoff to clear her name.
That was her endgame.
Ana stared at Quicktongue’s hand. At the crooked grin on his face. At the gleam of intent in his eyes.
“Trade up,” she echoed, and grasped his palm.
Excerpt copyright © 2019 by Amélie Wen Zhao. Cover art © 2019 by Ruben Ireland. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.