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.