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.