A Sample of Spirit's End by Rachel Aaron
At age thirteen, Eliton Banage was the most important thing in the world, and he knew it.
Wherever he went, spirits bowed before him and the White Lady he stood beside, Benehime, beloved Shepherdess of all the world. In the four years since the Lady had found him in the woods, he had wanted for nothing. Anything he asked, no matter how extravagant, Benehime gave him, and he loved her for it.
She took him everywhere: to the wind courts, to the grottoes and trenches of the seafloor, even into the Shaper Mountain itself. All the places Eli had only dreamed about, she took him, and everywhere they went, the spirits paid them homage, kissing Benehime’s feet with an adoration that spilled over onto Eli as well, as it should. He was the favorite, after all.
For four happy years this was how Eli understood the world. And then, the day before his fourteenth birthday, everything changed.
It began innocently. He’d wanted to go to Zarin, and Benehime had obliged. It was market day and the city was packed, but the crowds passed through them like shadows, unseeing, for Eli and the Lady were on the other side of the veil, that silk-thin wall that separated the spirits’ world from Benehime’s. As usual, Eli was walking ahead, showing off by slipping his hand through the veil to snitch a trinket or a pie whenever the shadows of the merchants turned away. He was so fast he could have done it without the veil to hide him, but Benehime had ordered he was never to leave the veil without her explicit permission. It was one of her only rules.
He’d just pulled a really good snatch, a gold-and-enamel necklace. Grinning, he turned to show it to Benehime, but for once she wasn’t behind him. Eli whirled around, necklace dangling from his fingers, and found the Lady several steps back. She was perfectly still, standing with her eyes closed and her head cocked to the side, like she was listening for something. He called her name twice before she answered. He ran to her, giving her the necklace, and she, laughing, admired it a moment before throwing it on the ground and going on her way.
This was how it usually went. Benehime hated everything humans made. She said they were like paintings done by a blind man, interesting for the novelty but never truly worth looking at. Eli had long since given up asking what she meant. Still, she liked when he gave her things, and making her happy was the most important thing in his life.
She stopped twice more before they made it to the main square. By the third time, Eli was getting annoyed. Fortunately, her last pause happened only a dozen feet from his goal—the Council bounty board.
“Look!” Eli shouted, running up to the wall of block-printed posters. “Milo Burch’s bounty is almost a hundred thousand now!” He stared at the enormous number, trying to imagine what that much gold would look like. “He’s like his own kingdom.”
Benehime woke from her trance with a laugh. Come now, she said, stepping up to join him. You saw five times that in the gold veins under the mountains just last week.
“It’s not about the gold,” Eli said, exasperated. “It’s about being someone who’s done things. Big things! Big enough to make someone else want to spend that much gold just to catch you.” He took a huge breath, eyes locked on the swordsman’s stern face glowering out of the inked portrait. “What kind of man must Milo Burch be for his head to be worth that much money?”
Who knows? Benehime said with a bored shrug. Humans have so many laws.
“I’m going to have a wanted poster some day,” Eli said proudly. “And a bounty. The biggest there’s ever been.”
Nonsense, love, Benehime said, taking his hand. Whatever would you do with such a thing? Besides—she kissed his cheek—no one could ever want you more than I do. Now come, it’s time to go home.
“But we just got here!” Eli cried, trying to tug his hand away.
Before he’d finished his sentence, they were back in Benehime’s white nothing.
Now, she said, sitting him on the little white bed she’d ordered the silkworms to spin just for him. Wait here and don’t move. I have to take care of something, but I won’t be long.
Eli glared. “Where are you going? And why can’t I come with—”
Benehime’s voice was sharp, and Eli shut his mouth sulkily. She smiled and folded her hands over his.
I’ll be back soon, she whispered, kissing his forehead. Wait for me.
Eli squirmed away, but the Lady had already vanished, leaving him alone in the endless white. He sat down with a huff, picking at his pillow with his fingernails while he counted down the seconds in his mind. When he’d sat just long enough to be sure she was really gone, Eli reached out and tapped the air. At once, a thin, white line appeared. It fell through the empty space, twisting sideways as it opened into a hole just wide enough for him to wiggle through. Grinning, Eli crawled forward and slipped through the veil after the Shepherdess.
She was easy to follow. Everywhere the Shepherdess went, the world paid attention. All he had to do was follow the trail of bowing spirits. The first few times he’d tried this she’d caught him easily, but Eli had quickly learned that if was quiet, Benehime didn’t always see him. And so, keeping himself very still and very silent, Eli slipped through the world until he saw the Lady’s light shining through the veil. He stopped a few feet away, lowering himself into the dim shadows of the real world before opening the veil just wide enough to peek through.
What he saw on the other side confused him. When the Lady had left so suddenly, he’d thought for sure she was going to deal with some spirit crisis. A flood maybe, or a volcano. Something interesting. But peeking through the tiny hole in the world, he didn’t see anything of the sort. Benehime was standing in a large, dirty study, her white feet resting on a pile of overturned books. In front of her, a thin, old man sat on a single bed. The sheet was thrown back as though he’d gotten up in a hurry, but his eyes were calm as he faced the Shepherdess, his rings burning like embers on his folded hands.
Eli frowned. Why was Benehime visiting a Spiritualist? She disliked the stuffy, meddling wizards even more than he did. Yet the man was almost certainly a Spiritualist; no one else wore jewelry that gaudy, and the study they were standing in was clearly the upper level of a Spiritualist’s Tower. It looked just like his father’s, Eli thought, though Banage would never let his room get so cluttered. He never allowed anything to fall short of his expectations, the old taskmaster. Eli glowered at that, but before he could fall into thinking about all the things his father had done wrong, the old Spiritualist spoke.
“You’re her, aren’t you?” he said, his voice full of wonder. “The greatest of the Great Spirits?”
I am no spirit.
Benehime’s voice was so cold and cruel, it took Eli several seconds to recognize it. She leaned over as she spoke, bending down until her eyes were level with the old man’s. Her presence saturated the air, as cold and heavy as wet snow, but the man didn’t even flinch.
Who told you?
“Doesn’t matter now,” the Spiritualist said, waving his hand, his rings glittering with terror in the Lady’s harsh, white light. “You’re here, and I have questions.”
Typical human arrogance, Benehime said, crossing her arms. To think I would answer your questions.
“If we are arrogant, it is you who made us so, Benehime,” the old man said, his voice growing every bit as sharp and cold as hers. “We are your creation, after all. Or, should I say, your distraction.”
Benehime sneered, her beautiful face twisting into a terrible mask. It seems the whispers of treason were grossly understated. I came here to deal with a spirit who didn’t understand my very simple doctrine of silence and find a full-blown rebellion. Tell me, human, when those spirits who’ve stupidly thrown their lot in with you were spilling my secrets, did they also tell you that the price for such knowledge was death?
“And what do I have to fear from death?” the Spiritualist said. “I am old, my life well lived. I have spent sixty years in duty to the spirits. I consider it an honor to die asking the questions they cannot.”
With that, the old man pushed himself off the bed. He creaked as he stood, rings burning on his fingers as his spirits poured their strength into his fragile, old limbs. When he spoke again, his voice was threaded with the voices of his spirits.
“What is on the other side of the sky, Shepherdess?” he asked. “Why is it forbidden to look at the hands that scrape the edge of the world? Why do the mountains ignore the claws that scrape their roots? What secret horror do the old spirits hide from the young at your order? What are you hiding that is so dangerous that speaking of it, or even just looking its way, is cause for death?”
His voice rose as he spoke. By the time he finished, he was nearly shouting, and yet his calm never broke. The Spiritualist’s soul filled the room, its heavy power steady and tightly controlled. His spirits clung to it, cowering in their master’s shadow from the Shepherdess’s growing rage. Eli could feel the Lady’s cold fury seeping through the veil itself, but when she spoke at last, it was a question.
Why do you care? she asked. Even if I told you, you couldn’t do anything. Why waste your life on knowledge that means nothing?
Eli held his breath. Benehime wasn’t talking to the man but to the trembling spirits on his fingers. Even so, it was the Spiritualist who answered.
“I ask because they deserve to know,” he said, raising his rings to his lips. “And while you may control my spirits utterly, you cannot control me, and you cannot control the truth.”
The Shepherdess bowed her head, and Eli clenched his fists. If this man had made his Lady cry, he’d…He was still figuring out what he would do when a sound rang out through the still room. It was musical and cold, colder than anything he’d ever felt, and Eli realized the Shepherdess was laughing.
Do you know how many times I’ve been told that? She giggled, raising her head with a smile that made Eli’s blood stop. You think that you’re the first to demand answers? Please. I’ve been Shepherdess for nearly five thousand years now. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been asked those same questions, but I’ve never once answered. And do you know why, little wizard?
For the first time since she’d arrived, the Spiritualist was speechless.
Let me tell you something about spirits, Benehime whispered, reaching out to trace the old man’s jaw. Spirits are panicky, stupid, and willfully ignorant. They knew what was on the other side of the sky, and they chose to look away and say nothing, to let the truth be lost under the press of time. They chose safety. They chose ignorance. The only one who didn’t get a choice was me.
She sighed deeply, trailing her fingers down the old man’s neck to his sunken chest, tapping each rib beneath his threadbare nightshirt. You want the truth, Spiritualist? she said, her white eyes sliding up to lock on his dark ones. I’ll tell it to you. The truth is your precious spirits don’t want to know what’s out there, because if they did, their panic would tear them apart.
“I don’t believe you,” the Spiritualist said, though his voice was far less sure than before. “The spirits deserve—”
The spirits deserve exactly what they have. Benehime snapped back, anger cutting through her voice like an icy wire. This is their world, created for them, and its rules, my rules, are for their protection.
As she finished, her hand slid into the old man’s chest. Her white fingers parted his skin like a blade, and the old Spiritualist gasped in pain. He would have fallen to his knees had Benehime’s hand not been in his ribs, lifting him up until his face was an inch from hers.
That may not have been the answer you thought you were dying for, she whispered. But that’s the problem with demanding the truth, Spiritualist. It doesn’t always come out as you’d like.
With that, she slid her hand out of his chest, and the old Spiritualist fell. His body changed as he plummeted, growing thinner, the skin shriveling. Eli pressed his hand over his mouth to keep from screaming as the old man, now little more than a skeleton, hit the ground and crumbled to dust. His rings hit a second later, the gold and jewels landing on the wooden floor with hollow clinks.
Benehime flicked her hand in disgust, and the Spiritualist’s blood fled from her skin, leaving her fingers clean and white. When her hand was purified to her satisfaction, she reached down to pick up the largest of the Spiritualist’s rings, a great onyx band the size of Eli’s thumb. T
he spirit began to sob the second Benehime touched it, and she silenced its blubbering with a sharp shake.
You, she said. See what you’ve done? This is your fault, you know. Why did you tell him?
The ring did not speak. Benehime scowled, and her light grew brighter. Even through the veil, the pressure of her anger was enough to make Eli’s ears pop. He clung to the veil, watching in horror as the ring trembled. Just when he was sure it was about to shake itself apart, the ring spoke one word.
Benehime arched a thin, white eyebrow. No?
“I’m not afraid of you, Shepherdess,” the black stone whispered. “No, not Shepherdess. Jailor, for that’s what you really are. You say you’re our Shepherd, our provider, but our wizard gave us more than you ever have. He fought for us, fought to learn the truth, and you killed him for it.”
Benehime’s white eyes narrowed. You want to share his fate? she said. You’re a strong stone, Durenei. Bow and beg forgiveness, and I may yet overlook this transgression.
The ring trembled in her hand, but its voice was stone when it spoke at last. “I hold true to my oaths and my master,” it whispered. “And I will never bow to you again.”
Benehime’s face closed like a trap. She clenched her hand in a fist, crushing the ring with a snap of cracking stone. The spirit gave one final cry, and then Benehime opened her hand to pour a thin stream of sand onto the floor.
After that, the Shepherdess didn’t offer her forgiveness again. She stepped forward, stomping her bare, white foot on the Spiritualist’s rings one by one. Each one died with a soft cry, and when her foot lifted, nothing was left of the old man’s spirits but dust. When they were all destroyed, the Shepherdess snapped her fingers.
The veil rippled, and Eli tensed, ready to run, but she wasn’t calling him. Instead, the Lord of Storms stepped through the hole in the world to stand at the Shepherdess’s side. He looked around the Tower as he entered, and his face settled into an even deeper scowl when he saw the piles of dust on the floor.
Erase this man and his spirits from the world’s memory, the Shepherdess said, waving at the dust. I don’t know his name, and I never want to.
The Lord of Storms folded his arms over his chest. “That’s not my job.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when the Shepherdess’s arm shot out, her white fingers grabbing his throat.
I’ve had enough insurrection for today, she whispered. You are my sword. I made you, and you will do whatever I ask. Do I make myself clear?
“Yes, Shepherdess,” the Lord of Storms whispered around her hold.
She released him with a disgusted sound and turned away, walking toward the center of the tower. The world was silent around her, holding its breath. When she reached the middle of the room, she stopped and held out her arms. When she brought them down again, the tower fell with a sigh. Great stone blocks crumbled to sand as Eli watched. Books fell to dust. Wood splintered to nothing. The spirits died without a sound, too terrified even to cry out, until Benehime and the Lord of Storms were floating alone in the empty air above a dusty clearing, all that was left of the Spiritualist’s two-story tower.
I’ll leave the rest to you.
“Yes, Shepherdess,” the Lord of Storms said, but the Lady was already gone. She vanished like the moon behind a cloud, leaving the night darker than ever. The second she was gone, Eli fled as well, scrambling through the veil to beat her back home.
He barely made it, winking into place on his pillow just as she appeared. She looked for him at once, and he beamed back at her, but his heart was thudding in his chest. She looked like she always did, white and beautiful, but when Eli gazed up at her now, all he could see was her foot coming down, her hand leaving the dead man’s chest.
What’s the matter, love? Benehime whispered, sinking onto the pillow beside him. You’re shaking. Are you cold?
Not trusting his voice, Eli shook his head. Benehime sighed and pulled him into her lap. Eli cringed from her touch before he could stop himself, and the Shepherdess froze.
Never pull away from me, she said, her voice as cold as glacier melt. You love me.
“I love you,” Eli repeated automatically, letting her move him as she liked. They sat like that for a while, tangled together, and then Benehime spoke.
Always remember, love, she said softly, kissing his hair, the world is a horrible place without gratitude or understanding. No matter how hard you work, you will never be thanked and you will never be loved. But we will always be together, darling. I will always love you, and you will always love me. Now, tell me you love me.
“I love you,” Eli said again.
Benehime nodded and pulled him closer, crushing him against her chest until he could barely breathe. Whatever happens, my favorite—she kissed him again and again—whatever comes, remember, I am all that matters in the world for you. I am your hope and your salvation. Love me forever and I will raise you up when all others are cast off. Though the world may end, no harm shall ever come to you. I swear it.
Eli nodded, letting the White Lady kiss him, but even as her lips landed again and again, all he could think of was her face, cruel and unrecognizable, as she crushed the Spiritualist’s onyx ring in her fist. And it was that moment, in the space between one kiss and the next, that Eli knew things could never be the same again.
After that night, Eli knew no peace.
Nothing changed at first. He continued as always, following Benehime wherever she needed to go, entertaining her when she was bored, telling her he loved her whenever prompted, like a little parrot. But he didn’t mean it, not anymore.
Now that he’d seen the truth once, he saw it all the time—the cruel shadow that lay behind her white smile. The way she held him just a hair too tightly. The faint threat in her voice every time she told him to say he loved her. But worst of all were the spirits.
Before, when they’d trembled in front of Benehime, Eli had always thought it was from awe. He now saw the shaking for what it really was: pure terror. He would stand beside the Lady as she dealt with the spirits, hating every second of it. Hating her for being that way. Hating himself for not seeing it sooner.
It hurt to think how childish he’d been, how naive. He’d thought he was important, having spirits bow to him as they bowed to her, but he was nothing but a shadow, an afterthought of their fear. It made him sick. Living with his father in the tower, the spirits had been his friends. They’d been kind to him when Banage had driven all kindness out in the name of discipline, and this was how he repaid them? Following their tyrant around, lapping up her attention like a little lovesick dog?
The truth of it ate at him like a worm. Everything Benehime did now—the forced kisses, the constant promises she wrung out of him—made Eli furious. Every day he felt more used and helpless, more disgusted, but what could he do? Benehime was always with him. She didn’t sleep, only sat beside him while he did. She never let him out of her sight save for those times when she vanished mysteriously.
Eli didn’t follow her anymore; he’d seen as much of her true nature as he cared to. But even if he had taken those chances to open a hole and escape, she would find him. Assuming the spirits didn’t report him at once, Benehime had told him many times that his soul shone like a beacon. All she had to do was look at her sphere and pick him out. No, if he wanted to escape for real, for good, Eli would have to convince Benehime to let him go. Of course, he had about as much chance of that as of convincing gravity not to pull him down, but even at fourteen, Eli was never one to let impossibilities stand in his way.
It took eight months before he finally came up with a plan that had a chance of working. He spent another month refining it, and yet another being the best possible boy Benehime could ever ask for just to make sure she wouldn’t be suspicious. Finally, when the plan was firmly cemented in his mind and Benehime was in the best mood he could manage, Eli sprang.
They were in the jungle far, far south of the Council Kingdoms. Eli had suggested the place because it was at the other end of the world from the Lord of Storms’ fortress, and he’d needed as few variables as possible. They were perched in the branches of an obliging tree, their feet dangling lazily in the air. Eli was using the tree’s flowers to make Benehime a crown while the Lady watched, her face beaming with love at the seemingly spontaneous show of affection.
The moment he laid the crown on her head, Eli said the words he’d been rehearsing to himself for the past eight weeks.
“Do you remember the story you told me once,” he said, his voice perfectly casual, “about when you first found Nara?”
Don’t speak her name, Benehime said, adjusting the flower crown with loving fingers. She’s forgotten, my treasure. Only you matter now.
Eli smiled his best bashful smile and pushed a step further. “Yes, but do you remember how you gave her a wish?”
Benehime laughed and drew him into her lap. Is that where this is going? she said, kissing his cheek. Do you want a wish too, love? Silly boy, you know I’ll give you whatever you want.
“It’s not so much a ‘what’ as something I want to do,” Eli said, reaching into the pocket of his beautiful white shirt and taking out the folded piece of paper he’d so carefully snitched the last time they were in Zarin.
Benehime’s smile faded as Eli spread the paper across their laps. It was a wanted poster for Den the Warlord. His terrifying face glared up at them, daring anyone to try for the enormous number written in block capitals below him: five hundred thousand gold standards.
What is this?
“You remember just before my birthday?” Eli said. “When I said I wanted to be on a wanted poster? Well, I’ve been thinking about it more and more lately, and I think I’m ready.”
Benehime leaned back to stare at him, her white face genuinely confused. Ready to do what?
“Get on a poster,” Eli said. “I’ve decided. I want to be a thief. Not just any thief, the world’s greatest thief!”
Love, Benehime said patiently, if you want something, I’ll give it to you. You don’t have to steal.
“It’s not about wanting anything,” Eli said. “It’s about being the best. Bounties are a measurement: the bigger the bounty, the better you are at whatever you did. Den was the best betrayer, and his face is known across the Council Kingdoms. Milo Burch was the best swordsman, and now he’s worth more dead than some nobles see in a lifetime. Den’s bounty alone is five hundred thousand gold! One hundred thousand would buy you a good-sized kingdom. How many people can say, ‘My life is worth five kingdoms’?”
Benehime sighed and pulled the flower crown from her head. Her brows were furrowed, a bad sign. She was losing interest. Eli licked his lips. He’d have to play this next part just right.
“I’m going to beat that,” he said, grabbing her hand. “I’m going to be the best thief ever. I’m going to steal everything worth stealing. I’m going to be famous all over, and I’m going to get the biggest bounty that’s ever been, twice as big as Den’s. That’s my wish. I want to earn a bounty of one million gold.”
It was the largest, most impossible number he could think of. Across from him, Benehime shook her head.
You have the silliest ideas, she said. Why would you want to be a thief?
“Because stealing’s the only thing I’m good enough at,” Eli said, smiling as he raised his hand.
Benehime blinked. Eli was holding the flower crown that, a second before, had been safely grasped in her now-empty hands. Suddenly, she began to laugh, reaching out to ruffle Eli’s dark hair with her white fingers.
I can’t deny you anything, she said. All right, tell me what I have to do to get you your poster.
Eli took a silent breath. This was it.
“That’s the thing,” he said, leaning into her touch. “If the bounty’s going to mean anything, I have to earn it myself.”
The laughter vanished from Benehime’s eyes.
Eli’s hands began to shake, but he kept his attention locked on the Lady. If he couldn’t finish this now, he would never escape. “I want to find a thief to teach me,” he said, enunciating each word to keep his voice from trembling. “I’ll learn the trade right, and—”
Enough. Benehime’s voice had changed. It was cold now, and as sharp as a razor. Do you think you can outsmart me?
Eli began to sweat. “I never meant—”
I may not pay much attention to the affairs of humans, but even I know you’re setting up an impossible situation. A million gold? From stealing? You’d have to steal everything of value on the continent.
Eli swallowed. “I—”
You think I can’t see what you’re doing? Benehime’s voice dripped with disgust as she took the crown from Eli’s hand and threw it on the ground far below. I’ve known for some time now that you were changing, Eliton. You tried to hide it, but I know you better than anyone. I knew you were growing distant. The Lord of Storms tried to warn me. He said you’d change, that you’d turn on me. He told me to make you immortal at the beginning, when you were still an innocent child. But I wanted to wait.
Her hand rose to his chin, delicate white fingers running down the line of his jaw. I wanted to let you grow into your true potential, she whispered. I wanted you to learn how to truly appreciate what you have here. I trusted that even when you knew everything, you would choose me above all else, as I chose you. And now, this is how you repay my faith? A transparent ploy?
“It’s not a ploy!” Eli lied.
Of course it is, Benehime said, slapping his face lightly. You know as well as I do you could never earn a million gold. You thought I was ignorant of things like money and bounties, and you meant to play on that ignorance, getting me to agree to let you run off in pursuit of an impossible goal. Let me guess, the next part was that you’d return to me once you’d earned your bounty and we’d be together forever, right?
Eli winced before he could hide it. She’d seen straight through him. The woman sitting across from him now was not the Benehime he knew, but the true Shepherdess—ruthless, cruel, and very, very dangerous. His heart began to pound as the hand on his cheek slid down to his throat, the slender fingers moving to press gently on his windpipe.
Come, dear, she whispered. Don’t look so afraid. I still love you more than anything. In fact, I like you best when you’re being sneaky. But we’ll have no more of this leaving talk. You’re mine. My pet. My comfort. My favorite. Now, come and make me another crown and we’ll forget all about this idiocy.
She lowered her hand and Eli gripped his neck, rubbing the bruised skin. If he’d been older, more experienced, he would have dropped the subject and started picking flowers for a new crown, but he was young. Young and desperate, and as he watched what could be his last chance at freedom vanishing before his eyes, he could not help making a final, desperate grab.
“You’re wrong,” he said softly.
Benehime froze, her white body perfectly still. About what?
“I wasn’t lying to you,” Eli answered. “I do want to become the world’s greatest thief, and I can earn a million gold bounty. You told me I could have whatever I wished for. That’s it. I want the chance to prove you wrong.”
Benehime sighed. Now you’re just getting desperate, love. The only way you could possibly earn a million gold bounty is if I helped you.
“You’re wrong!” Eli said, speaking his mind for the first time since the night she’d killed the Spiritualist. “I don’t need your help, and I’m not your pet. I’m a wizard and the best thief around. I can earn a million gold on my own.”
Don’t be stupid, Benehime said. You think you’re some kind of savant thief because you’ve snatched a few trinkets? The only way you got any of it was because I let you open the portals and steal through the veil. Part of growing up is learning to face the truth, Eliton, and the truth is that you’re nothing without my favor. Just a charming boy with quick hands. How could something so small possibly be enough to earn a million gold?
Eli swallowed against his pounding heart. “Want to bet?”
Benehime scowled. What?
“I’ll make you a deal,” Eli said, speaking quickly before he lost his nerve. “Give me the chance to prove I wasn’t lying before. Let me go learn to be a thief and try to earn that million gold bounty on my own skills. If it really is impossible, if at any point I have to ask for your help, then you win. I’ll come back to you and be everything you want me to be. But if I’m right, if I get a million gold without your help, then you have to let me go free.”
Benehime leaned in until she was so close Eli could feel her cold breath on his skin. Why would I ever take a bet like that? she said. I hold all the cards. Why should I take a risk?
“Because if you don’t, then there was no point in letting me grow up,” Eli said, his voice trembling. “You said you wanted me to learn to appreciate you, right? Well, how can I do that if I never get to experience life away from you? If you keep me here, then you’ll never know if I’m lying when I say I love you because I’ve never had the chance to experience life without your love.”
He leaned forward, closing the tiny gap between them so that their foreheads pressed together. “Let me go,” he whispered, staring into her cold, white eyes. “Let me try it on my own. If I fail, then I’ll have learned how much I need you and I’ll never, ever try to run again. And if I do somehow succeed, then I’ve proven that I love thieving more than I love you, and that sort of man isn’t worthy of being your favorite anyway.”
I decide who is worthy of my favor, Benehime said, but Eli could hear the consideration in her voice. Behind the blank wall of her white irises, he could almost see her thinking it over, testing the angles, looking for her edge.
She must have found it, because the Shepherdess leaned in and kissed him. It was a hard kiss, crushing his lips against her burning skin, but when she leaned back, the distance between them felt final. Real.
I always did like you best at your most defiant, she said, smiling. Very well, you’ve got your chance. But I’m warning you, Eliton, I will hold you to every letter of our deal. You have to do it all yourself, no using my power, no showing your mark. And the moment you get in over your head, the second you have to ask me for help, you belong to me. Forever.
“Fair deal,” Eli said, a smile spreading over his face. “But you should know better than anyone how stubborn I can be.”
Benehime almost laughed at that, but caught herself at the last moment. She reached up, resting her white hands on his shoulders. For a moment, Eli thought she was going to pull him into a hug, but then, without warning, she pushed him.
He toppled off the tree, falling fifteen feet before landing on his back in the wet cushion of leaf litter at the tree’s base. The impact knocked the wind out of him, and for several moments all he could do was gasp for air. When his lungs finally started working again, he sat up with a groan, looking around at the endless forest. Overhead, the tree branch was empty. Benehime was gone.
He froze a moment, waiting for her to say something. But the forest was silent. Then, like someone opened a door, the sounds came roaring back as the spirits recovered from the Shepherdess’s presence. Eli sat in the muck, trying to get himself to believe what his senses were telling him. Benehime was gone. His gambit had worked. He was free.
He stood up with a whoop that echoed through the forest, and for ten minutes he danced like an idiot, bouncing off the trees in celebration of his glorious, glorious freedom. The white world was gone. Everywhere he looked he saw color. Spirits buzzed all around him, their noises calm and without fear, and Eli fell to the ground, greeting them with pure joy. The spirits, alarmed at this wizard who was suddenly shouting at them, clammed up immediately, but Eli was too happy to care.
After almost half an hour of this, Eli realized he’d better get going. He had a bounty to earn, and he couldn’t do that in the middle of nowhere. Brushing the leaves off his white clothes, Eli reached out to tap the veil and make a door to somewhere useful.
He caught himself a second before the cut opened. Oh no, it wasn’t going to be that easy. No using the Shepherdess’s gifts, that was the deal, and Eli would stick to it if it killed him. They were enemies in the game now, and if she got even an ounce of leverage on him, she would push on it with everything she had, just as Eli would. Now that he was still, he could almost feel her waiting on the other side of the veil, watching him, urging him to make a mistake, to give her something she could use.
With a sly smile, Eli drew his hand back and slid it into his pocket. He picked a direction almost at random and began to walk through the forest, whistling as the evening rain began to fall.
Giuseppe Monpress, the greatest thief in the world, had retired to his northern retreat for a little well-earned rest and to plan his next heist. He was just sitting down to his first dinner in solitude, a splendid roast duck with shallots and an excellent bottle of wine he’d lifted from the Whitefall family’s private cellar, when he heard a knock on his door.
Monpress froze. This was one of his most secure hideouts. He was high in the Sleeping Mountains, deep in bandit country. But he had an understanding with the local gang, and anyways, bandits didn’t knock. He swirled the wine in his glass, considering his options as the knock came again, louder this time.
With a long sigh and a sip from his glass, Monpress decided he’d better answer it.
He pushed his chair back and walked to the door, grabbing his dagger from the mantel, just in case. The knock was sounding a third time when Monpress opened the door and glared down at his most unwelcome visitor.
It was a boy. Monpress pegged him at a young fifteen. He was scrawny and short for his age with untrimmed black hair and a face that was too likable to mean any good. He was dressed in rags, his feet shoved into ill-fitting shoes that were far too thin for the half foot of snow on the ground, and he looked as if he hadn’t had a good meal in weeks. But, hungry as he must have been, the boy didn’t even glance at the succulent duck sitting on the table. Instead, he looked Monpress straight in the eye and flashed him what the boy probably considered a deeply charming smile.
“Are you Giuseppe Monpress?”
Monpress leaned on the door, framing the duck behind him with his crooked arm, just to be cruel. “That depends,” he said slowly. “Unless you can give me a very compelling reason why you know that name, you can think of me as your death.”
To his credit, the boy’s smile didn’t falter. “I heard from a reliable source that Giuseppe Monpress was the greatest thief in the world, so I set off to find him. Took me the better part of a month to pin him down to this part of the mountains, but I couldn’t get an exact location, so I’ve been checking each likely valley.”
“Impressive,” Monpress said. “And what were you going to do when you found him?”
The boy straightened up. “I’m going to ask him to take me as an apprentice.”
“I’m sorry you’ve wasted your time, then,” Monpress said. “Giuseppe Monpress doesn’t take apprentices.”
“Since only Giuseppe Monpress would know that, I think you’ve answered my question,” the boy said. “And I can assure you, Mr. Monpress, that you’ll take me.”
Despite himself, Monpress began to chuckle. “And why is that?”
“Because I’m going to be the greatest thief in the world,” the boy said proudly. “And because, if you don’t take me, I’m going to sit on your doorstep until you change your mind.”
Monpress smiled. “Assuming, for the moment, that you’re right, you can hardly expect the greatest thief in the world to be trapped by a boy at his door. What will you do when I give you the slip?”
“Find you again,” the boy said with a shrug. “As many times as I need to.”
“I see,” Monpress said. “Why are you so determined, if I may ask?”
The boy looked insulted. “I told you,” he said. “I’m going to be the greatest thief in the world. You don’t get to the top by apprenticing yourself to amateurs.”
“So you’re serious about just sitting there?” Monpress said.
“Absolutely,” the boy said, and then, to prove his point, he sat down on the icy step, propping his legs up in Monpress’s door. The position only helped to highlight how pathetically thin he was, and Monpress felt a tiny twinge of pity. Fortunately, it was easily quashed.
“Well,” he said, stepping back, “then I hope you have a lovely night.”
He held just long enough to see the boy’s smile begin to crumble before he shut the door in his face.
Nodding at a job well done, Monpress slipped his dagger into his belt and returned to the table. As he sat down in his chair, he braced himself for a racket as the boy began to demand to be let in, but none came. Except for the howl of the wind outside, the cabin was silent. If Monpress hadn’t just shut a door in his face, he’d have never known the boy was outside.
He glanced sideways at the shutters, rattling in their grooves as the storm blew back up, and then he looked back down at his rapidly cooling dinner. He’d just raised his knife and fork to carve the duck when the wind gave a low, mournful howl. Giuseppe rolled his eyes and set his silverware down with a sigh. He stood up and marched over to the door. Sure enough, the boy was sitting on the doorstep just as Monpress had left him, only his black hair was now full of snow.
“Change your mind?” the boy said, looking up.
“Not as such,” Monpress said. “Happy as I would be to let you sit out there until you starved, it seems that my conscience is heavy enough without a boy’s life weighing on it. I’m not agreeing to anything, mind you, but since it’s clear you’re the suicidally stubborn type, you might as well come in and eat.”
The boy grinned from ear to ear and rushed inside so fast Monpress was nearly knocked off his feet. The boy sat down in Monpress’s chair and began devouring the duck like he’d never tasted food in his life. The thief sighed and walked over to rescue his wine before it too disappeared into the boy’s maw.
“What’s your name?” he said as he spirited his drink to safety.
“Eli,” the boy gasped between bites.
Giuseppe frowned. “Eli what?”
The boy shrugged and kept eating. Monpress sat down with a sigh, sipping his wine as he watched the boy reduce his fine roast duck to bones. The child was cracking them to suck the marrow when he caught Giuseppe looking.
“What?” he said, shoving a leg bone into his mouth.
“Nothing,” Monpress said. “Just trying to shake the feeling that I’ve let my doom in by the front door.”
“I wouldn’t fret about it too much,” Eli said. “I was planning to come down the chimney once you’d banked the fire anyway.” He flashed Monpress a smile before spitting out the bone in his mouth and reaching for another. “When do we start training?”
Monpress drained his glass and poured himself another. He briefly thought about continuing his denials, but he was rapidly running out of energy to fight the boy’s seemingly endless optimism. “Tomorrow morning,” he said, taking a long drink.
Eli’s eyes widened, and his face broke into an enormous grin. “What am I doing?”
“Fetching a cask of whiskey from my stash up the mountain.”
Eli’s face fell dramatically. “Whiskey? Why?”
“Because, if you’re going to be staying here, I’m going to need it,” Monpress said. “Finish your supper. I think a speck of duck still exists.”
Eli gave him a skeptical look before turning back to the far more important task of making sure no bit of duck flesh escaped his attack.
Outside the little cabin, far from the cheery light of the little fire, the white shape of a woman vanished into the deep, drifting snow.
Eleven Years Later
The vast desert that stretched across the Immortal Empire’s southwestern tip was still and quiet in the moonlight. At its edges, the coast was calm, the ocean lapping tiredly against the beaches. The great storm that had raged for weeks up and down the continent’s seaboard had died as suddenly as it began, the clouds dissipating in a handful of seconds to leave the night sky clear and blank as though there had never been a storm at all. Only the wreckage of the sea towns and the wall the Empress had raised to protect them remained, an improvised barrier standing awkwardly at the edge of the placid sea.
Suddenly and without warning, a light cut through the stillness. All across the dark desert, white lines appeared. They sliced high in the air, forming long needles of light that dangled several dozen feet above the sand. One after another they appeared until the sky was full of them, their white light filling the desert until it was as bright as noon, and then the quiet shattered as the Immortal Empress’s invasion fleet fell through the white lines and crashed into the dunes below.
The palace ships slammed into the sand, their great keels cracking against solid ground. Without the water to keep them upright, the boats toppled immediately, rolling onto their sides like falling horses. The night was full of cracking wood as hulls splintered and masts snapped like twigs, and then, as the white lines faded and the ships settled into their deathbeds, the cries of men rose to drown out the groaning of the boats as the Empress’s army, the largest army ever raised, began to pick itself up.
At the head of the now grounded fleet, a large crowd was gathering around a boat that had lost its prow. Even in the chaos, word spread quickly, and the soldiers surged like ants from their toppled ships to gather around the palace ship with the broken hull at the very front of the fleet where, rumor had it, the Empress herself was buried under the wreckage. Up on the deck, the ship’s captain was already at work, shouting orders to a crew of fifty strong men as they hauled the top half of the broken mast off the deck where the Empress had fallen.
They found her lying in a crater of broken wood. Her golden armor was shattered and the cloth beneath was stained bright red with blood. When they saw her, the soldiers fell silent, struck dumb at the possibly that the Immortal Empress, the undying, unquestioned divine ruler of the world, could possibly be dead.
But then, with a groan, the Empress opened her eyes. The men flinched back. Some fell to their knees, others simply stood, shocked. The Empress paid them no mind. She just pushed herself up, throwing off the remains of her golden armor to free her arms.
“Empress?” her captain whispered.
The Empress didn’t answer. She didn’t even look at her men. Her attention was entirely focused on getting to her feet. When she was standing at last, she reached out and tapped the air in front of her. No sooner had her finger moved than a new, thinner white line flashed in the dark, dropping through the air to just above her feet. The moment the line stopped growing, the Empress stepped through it, leaving the dark desert full of broken ships and moving into a world of pure white light. When she was through, the line shimmered and faded, leaving her soldier staring in vain at the empty place where their Empress had been.
Opening a door through the veil to Benehime’s private world without the Shepherdess’s permission was forbidden even to stars. Nara didn’t care. She stomped through the portal, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the blinding white. But even before she could see, the Empress knew exactly who was waiting.
Benehime lounged in the air, her white hair falling over her body like a cloak. Behind her, the Lord of Storms hovered like a glowering black shadow. A small, distant part of Nara’s brain noted that the Shepherdess must have pulled him back together not long ago. Bits of him were still shifting between flesh and cloud, giving him that wild look he always got when he was fresh from his true form.
His expression, however, was as solid as sharpened steel and locked on her with a look of pure disgust as Nara stumbled forward. But even as she registered his presence, Nara put the Lord of Storms out of her mind. He was beneath her notice. All that mattered was the Lady and the creature she held in her arms.
The thief sat in Benehime’s lap like a dog. The travel-stained clothes he’d worn on the beach were gone, replaced by a pure white fitted jacked and trousers tucked into tall white boots. The Shepherdess held him close, one hand around his waist, the other brushing over his thigh like she was petting him. The thief had the good sense to keep his eyes down as Nara approached, but the Shepherdess looked straight at her, absently stroking the boy as she regarded her former favorite through narrowed, white eyes.
I do not recall summoning you here, Empress.
For the first time in her life, Nara’s rage was so great that even the sound of the Shepherdess’s voice couldn’t shock her out of it. She stopped right in front of the Lady, breathing the cold, white air in great gasps until, at last, she managed a single, coherent word.
Benehime tilted her head, laying her ear against the thief’s chest. He is my favorite, she said simply. I thought I’d made that clear.
“I am your favorite!” Nara screamed. “I’ve always been your favorite! For the last eight hundred years I’ve given you my utter devotion. I gave you half the world as a peaceful, prosperous Empire! I raised you an army and sailed across the Unseen Sea. I destroyed an island, sacrificed my men, all for you! Everything I’ve ever done has been for you! So why? Why am I so summarily replaced by this disobedient, arrogant, faithless—”
The words froze in her throat as the air around her solidified. Suddenly, Nara couldn’t move. She couldn’t even breathe. In front of her, Benehime’s white mouth curled in a disgusted sneer.
You will not speak so of my favorite.
Completely frozen, Nara could only stare in response.
The Lady reached down and took Eli’s wrist. He flinched when she touched him, but didn’t say a word as the Shepherdess lifted his hand and held it out to Nara.
I am the Shepherdess, the Lady said, turning the thief’s hand palm down and pushing it forward until his fingers were half an inch from Nara’s frozen lips. A Power of Creation, given dominion over all spirits by the Creator himself. There is no opinion in the world that matters save mine, no will save my will. Now, do you love me, Nara?
The frozen air thawed just enough for Nara to take a breath. “Yes,” she whispered, tears running down her face. “But—”
And do you wish to stay by my side forever?
“I do.” The words burned in Nara’s throat.
The Lady smiled a cruel, beautiful smile. Then know your place. She pushed Eli’s fingers closer to Nara’s lips. Kiss my favorite and apologize for hurting his lava spirit and putting his friends in danger.
Nara stared at the Lady, her battered body perfectly still though the frozen air had already released her.
Benehime’s smile faded. Do it, she snapped. Prove you love me. Honor my favorite and take your place at the bottom of my stars.
Nara glanced at the thief’s fingers, now barely a quarter of an inch from her lips. On the Shepherdess’s lap, Eli’s face was a calm, bored mask, his gaze fixed on some unseen spot on the ground. But as much as he tried to hide it, Nara saw the truth. The thief’s eyes were full of pity. He pitied her, and in that moment, Nara hated him more than she knew she could hate. But even so, even though it boiled her blood to do it, she leaned forward until her lips touched the thief’s outstretched hand.
“Hail the favorite,” she whispered.
Eli flinched as though the kiss were an arrow in his chest, but the Shepherdess looked pleased. She dropped Eli’s hand and reached out to lay her fingers gently on Nara’s head.
Poor Nara, the Shepherdess said, stroking her hair. You probably think I’ve played you unfairly these last few days.
The Empress resisted the urge to lean into the Lady’s touch. “You used me,” she said, glaring daggers at Eli. “To get to him.”
That I did, the Shepherdess said. But it was you who said you would do anything for me. What could be a greater honor than being a tool in the pursuit of my happiness?
Nara clenched her teeth and said nothing.
Unfortunately, the Shepherdess went on, all tools outlive their usefulness eventually.
Nara blinked. “What?”
Times are changing, Nara, the Shepherdess went on, stroking the Empress’s dark hair absently, like she was petting a cat. There’s no room anymore for the disobedient.
“What?” Nara said again, louder this time.
The Shepherdess’s fingers suddenly curled, tangling in Nara’s hair, and the Empress cried in pain as Benehime wrenched her head up.
You shouldn’t have thrown that water on my favorite’s lava spirit, she whispered, her white eyes boring into Nara’s. You shouldn’t have come here uninvited, and you should have kissed my Eliton’s hand the first time I told you to. One disobedience I could overlook; three is simply insulting.
Nara’s eyes watered at the pain of Benehime’s grip on her hair. This was all wrong. This was not how it was supposed to be. The Shepherdess was her beloved, her everything.
“No,” she whispered, reaching up to grab Benehime’s hand. She clutched the Lady’s white wrist, arching her neck painfully as she tried to kiss it. “I love you. If I was ever disobedient, it was from love of you. Tell me what to do, tell me how to change to make you love me again.” Her voice rose to a frantic shriek. “Tell me how to love you and I’ll do it!”
The pain in her head faded as Benehime’s fingers released their grasp. The White Lady snatched her hand away and looked down with a disgust so intense Nara barely recognized her.
Why would I need you? she said, her voice as cold as a glacier’s heart as she pulled the thief closer. I already have someone to love me. Good-bye, Empress.
Nara doubled over as something inside her, something deeper than she’d ever known her soul could go, twisted and broke. All at once, she could no longer feel her body. She tried to breath, but her lungs wouldn’t obey. Looking down at her shaking hands, Nara saw her skin turn gray, then white, then vanish all together. Her bones shrank before her eyes, growing smaller and brittler until they snapped under their own weight. Her chest ached, and she looked down to see that it was caving in.
She would have screamed then, but there was no longer breath in her crumbling throat. As her vision went dark, her last thought was a memory. She was kneeling in the swamp again, and Benehime was reaching out, her lovely fingers curved in an inviting gesture, her light lighting up the world. Before Nara could rise and go to her, the moment was gone, and she fell to dust with Benehime’s name on the last remnants of her lips.
Well, Benehime said, shaking her hand as though she could shake the last feel of Nara from her skin, that’s that.
On her lap, Eli was staring at the pile of dust that, seconds ago, had been the most powerful ruler in the world. “What did you do?” he whispered.
She was no longer worthy of being my star, Benehime said. So I removed my blessing and allowed age to catch up with her at last. Eight hundred years is a lot to handle all at once. I guess she couldn’t take it.
Eli’s voice was shaking so badly he could barely get the words out. “But she loved you.”
Everything loves me, the Shepherdess said with a shrug. Even you. Isn’t that right, darling?
Eli said nothing, and the Shepherdess tightened her grip, her sharp fingers biting into his ribs.
None of that, she whispered. I won. You’re mine, remember? Now, don’t you love me, darling?
Eli turned to her with a slow smile. “Of course I do.”
Benehime smiled back and gave him a kiss on the nose. Then she motioned for him to get off her lap. Eli moved to sit where she motioned, leaving the Shepherdess some space as she turned to talk to the Lord of Storms.
Their conversation was low and tense. It sounded like an old argument, and though Eli tried to listen, his attention kept drifting to the Lady’s floating sphere, which was hanging in the air by his elbow. Particularly, his eyes kept going to one small island off the coast of the western continent where the fires were still burning in a destroyed city as dawn broke over the eastern sea.
Josef Liechten, King of Osera, was spending the twentieth hour of his reign in the still-smoking shell of Osera’s throne room, listening to old men argue.
He sat on the steps of the throne beside the one remaining iron lion. The other lay toppled on the floor, its head melted to slag by the foot of the war spirit whose cold corpse lay collapsed in the rubble of what had been the throne room’s western wall. The throne was crushed as well, the carved stone bench and backboard pounded into gravel. That was probably for the best. Sitting on the stairs listening to his mother’s advisers bicker over Osera’s future was bad enough. If Josef had been forced to sit in her chair for it, he probably would have walked out.
He was close enough to walking as it was. The advisers weren’t even talking to him, just yelling at each other over his head about what must be done. Apparently, there were a lot of musts. Disgusted, Josef turned and looked out the crushed wall of the throne room. Through the large hole the war spirit had left, he could see the whole of the royal city, or what was left of it.
The stylish stone buildings and narrow lanes that had once covered the western slope of Osera were now little more than blackened piles of rubble. Entire blocks had shattered when the war spirits fired from the Empress’s palace ships had landed, leaving craters of blasted, burned dirt where houses and shops had once stood. The Spiritualists had managed to get most of the fires under control, but a few stray lines of smoke were still rising from the docks, and, of course, there were the war spirits themselves. Their corpses were everywhere. After Eli had done…whatever it was he’d done and the Empress’s fleet had vanished, the war spirits had toppled over and gone cold. They hadn’t moved since, but the damage was done. Everywhere Josef looked, Osera was destroyed, and try as he might to remember that his island had rebuilt before, it was hard to feel any kind of hope.
Josef sighed and rested his chin on his fist. Eli’s eternal optimism usually grated on him, but he could have really used some right now. How long did the useless thief mean to disappear for, anyway?
Josef flinched and glanced up. All the old men were staring at him. Powers, he’d missed something again, hadn’t he?
Seeing his panicked look, the oldest of the ministers, a man Josef remembered seeing with his mother in court as a child, though he couldn’t remember the old bastard’s name now to save his life, repeated the question.
“Minister Archly was asking your opinion on how we should prioritize our emergency response. Should we focus on evacuation or should we concentrate our attention on saving what we can of our remaining structures?”
“We must do all we can to help the people, of course,” put in another minster, whom Josef could only guess was Archly. “But our infrastructure is Osera’s most valuable asset. We should—”
“Can’t have infrastructure without people,” Josef said, glad of a simple question. “Our first priority is to make sure we save as many people as possible. We’ve given the Empress too many Oseran lives as it is. I’ll not give her any more.”
“Of course, sire,” the old minister said, his voice strained. “But what about—”
“Figure it out,” Josef growled, standing up. The old men all started talking at once then, but Josef just pushed past them, stalking off toward the blown-out doors.
The Oseran palace had been as hard hit as the rest of the city, but, remarkably, the royal wing was still intact. Josef stomped through the empty corridors. He’d sent the servants to help with the recovery, and so far he didn’t miss them. After all the noise and chaos of the last two days, the silence in the empty halls was much more comforting than having someone around to make his fire. Josef jogged down the hall and quietly opened the door to his chambers, tiptoeing through the parlor and into his bedroom, where he stopped to let his eyes adjust to the dark.
Nico lay in his bed, a dark shape buried beneath the covers. He’d carried her here himself when they’d cleared the survivors off the storm wall. She’d been awake then, but was sleeping now. Josef let out a breath. Seeing the steady rise and fall of her chest calmed him better than anything else.
Walking to the bed, Josef eased himself down to the mattress. He kept his eyes on Nico to make sure the motion didn’t disturb her, but Nico didn’t stir. Smiling, Josef leaned against the heavy headboard and closed his eyes against his own tiredness.
He hadn’t slept since the night before last, when he’d fallen asleep on the couch waiting for Adela. Now that he was sitting, he could feel the tiredness in his marrow. Even the Heart on his back felt heavy. He wanted more than anything to lie down beside Nico and let her calm breaths lull him to sleep, but there were still fires in the city below. People were still digging their families out of the rubble, and all the ministers wanted to do was argue over infrastructure.
Josef gritted his teeth. He should have sent the old men down to dig through the broken houses themselves. That would have taught them. But, of course, he’d never do that. He could chop a palace ship in two, but Oseran politicians still made him feel like a stumbling boy. They’d probably taken his “Figure it out” command as a chance to do whatever they liked, but Josef wasn’t really sure he cared. After all, they knew more about running a country than he did. Maybe it was for the best if he just stayed out of things.
He must have drifted off in the dark room. One moment he was looking at Nico; the next he was jerked awake by the sound of someone knocking on the door. Stiff and more tired than ever, Josef forced himself to his feet. He walked quietly to the door and opened it a fraction to see one of the guardsmen who’d stood with him on the storm wall.
The young man had bandages on his face and arms, but he was standing, and he bowed when he saw Josef.
“Sire,” he said, “you’re needed in the square.”
“What’s happened?” Josef said, slipping out of the bedroom and closing the door so their voices wouldn’t disturb Nico.
The guard grinned as far as the bandage across his jaw would allow. “Wouldn’t you know it, sire? The reinforcements have finally arrived.”
“About bleeding time,” Josef said, motioning for the guard to lead the way.
Since most of the palace meeting rooms had been either burned or crushed in the attack, the palace guards, those who were left anyway, had brought the newcomers to a hastily set up tent in the stable yard. A dozen soldiers in Council white stood crammed into the narrow space. Josef wasn’t surprised to see Sara there as well. The Council wizard was talking animatedly to a large, middle-aged man in an ornate military coat who seemed to be the troop’s leader. So far, the only Oserans present were a few bandaged guards. They saluted as Josef approached, and he saluted back, keeping his eyes on the Council man and Sara as he entered the tent.
“Shall I fetch your advisers, sire?” whispered the guard who’d brought him.
“No,” Josef said. The last thing he needed when he was dealing with the Council were old men making him feel like a tongue-tied teenager. “They have their jobs already. I’ll fill them in later.”
The guardsman nodded and moved to take up position behind his king. Meanwhile, Josef himself took a seat on the folding stool, leaning forward so he could rest his weight on his knees
. Sara arched an eyebrow at this, but the man in the military jacket looked almost ill with insult.
“You’re the new Eisenlowe?” he said at last, looking Josef up and down, his eyes lingering on the rips in Josef’s shirt and the bloodstains on the bandages beneath.
“I am,” Josef said. “Who are you?”
The man pulled himself straight. “Myron Whitefall, Commander of the United Council Forces, come to offer Osera the Council’s aid against the Empress.”
“You’re a little late for that,” Josef said. “The Empress is gone, but if you’d like to stay and help clean up, you’re welcome to.”
“As much as we’d like to help, the Merchant Prince gathered the Council army to march against the Empress, not to act as janitors,” Myron said testily. “You have our thanks and admiration for turning back her initial assault, King Josef. You should rest and regather your armies. We will take up position on the coast for her next attack.”
“I already told you. There won’t be a next attack,” Sara said, blowing a line of smoke into the air. “The boy’s right; we’ve already done all the work. The Empress is gone. Defeated. Sent packing. You’ve come too late, Myron dear, as you would know if you listened to any of the Relay messages I sent you or the last five minutes I just wasted trying to keep you from looking like an idiot.”
Myron’s face went scarlet. “Do you honestly expect me to believe that you defeated the Immortal Empress with a handful of wizards and a few hundred Oseran troops?”
“What you believe is your business,” Josef said. “The truth is what it is. The Empress vanished. We saw it with our own eyes, and all her ships vanished with her.”
“Vanished?” Myron shrieked. “How does an armada vanish? And how do you know it wasn’t a trick?”
“We don’t,” Sara said. “But if it was a trick, it was a badly timed one. She was winning, after all.”
Myron looked affronted, and Sara heaved a long sigh. For a moment, she looked almost sad, and then the expression was gone as she went on as brusquely as ever. “Much as it pains me to say it, I believe we were merely the lucky recipients of a miracle. A miracle I intend to thoroughly investigate, but a miracle nonetheless.”
Josef listened with growing anger. Sara’s flippant words seemed like an insult to what had happened last night. He could still see it clearly—the dark, frozen sea, the glowing lines, and Eli standing in the middle of it all with that horrible, defeated look on his face as the white arms dragged him through the world. He’d be back, of course, Josef reminded himself. Eli would never pull something like that unless he had a plan.
Somewhat appeased by that, Josef turned back Myron. The Council commander had lost his look of confident superiority and was now standing bewildered, his eyes begging Josef to let him in on the joke. But there was no joke, and all Josef could do was try and bring the Council man around to his side.
“There may be no Empress to fight,” he said. “But we still need your help. As I’m sure you saw on your way up, Osera was nearly flattened last night.” He glanced down the mountain to where the Council’s ships were moored to whatever docks were still above water. “A dozen warships full of hands would mean a lot to us right now.”
Whitefall bristled for a moment, but then his shoulders fell. “Of course,” he said at last. “The Council will of course offer aid to Osera in her time of need.”
“Good,” Josef said. “I’d hate to think we were paying those dues for nothing.”
This earned him a nasty glare from Myron, but Josef was already looking over his shoulder to where his advisers had gathered on the stairs. All of them were leaning in to hear what was going on in the tent. When Josef waved his hand, the old men hurried forward.
“The Council has offered to help us clean up,” he said as they entered the tent. “Can you work with him?”
Since he said this to no one in particular, every one of his advisers thought the king was addressing him personally, and they all agreed in unison.
“But of course—”
“Your majesty is too gracious—”
“It would be an honor to serve—”
“The Council is a valued ally—”
The cries dissolved into argument almost immediately, and Josef, realizing he was going to have to do something, started making assignments at random, dividing the city’s five districts between the five younger advisers before putting the oldest in charge of working directly with Whitefall on logistics.
Surprisingly, everyone seemed reasonably happy with this setup. They immediately started working things out among themselves, and Josef took the chance to make his escape.
He motioned for a guard and lowered his voice. “I’m going to grab some sleep while they work this out. Spread the word, whoever wakes me up without a good reason loses his head.”
“Yes, sire,” the guard said, bowing. “Rest well.”
Josef nodded and turned away, disappearing up the stairs toward his room, Nico, and the cool, welcoming dark.
Sara sat back, puffing on her pipe and watching with bemusement as Myron was set upon by a swarm of Oseran officials eager to prove their worth to the new king. Despite the horrible things she’d heard about Theresa’s son, he seemed to be adapting to his new life quite well. He’d certainly learned how to delegate. He’d learned how to make a quiet exit too, possibly an even more useful skill, and certainly one that served her purposes at the moment. The boy didn’t seem to be any great friend of Banage or his darling apprentice, but she had the feeling the next hour would be much simpler without the king’s interference.
Once Myron had extricated himself from the mass of officials, Sara waved him over. He gave her a dirty look, but he came.
“To hear those Oserans talk, you’d think I’d laid the wealth of the Council at their feet,” he grumbled, sinking down onto the stool beside Sara. “I can’t grow buildings out of the ground.”
He gave her a sideways look, and Sara chuckled.
“Neither can I,” she said. “I’m no Shaper. And don’t look at me like that. You can’t be sneering at wizard tricks one week and begging for them the next.”
“You’re the one spouting nonsense about miracles,” Myron said bitterly. “Are you going to tell me what actually happened here?”
“I don’t think you’d understand if I tried,” Sara said, tapping the ashes out of her pipe. “I’m not sure I understand yet, but I intend to.”
Myron snorted. “And I suppose your little fop is working on that?”
Sara laughed. “Sparrow? No, he’s asleep. Even he needs his rest sometimes. Unfortunately my curiosity will have to wait just a little longer. For now, you should reserve a squad of soldiers before the Oserans set them all to picking up bricks. We have unfinished business to wrap up.”
“We?” Myron said. “What do you mean?”
Sara looked pointedly at a knot of Spiritualists talking to a building across the square. “The Empress may be defeated,” she said, “but treason is still treason, Myron.”
Myron expression darkened as he caught her meaning. “I’ll get some men. Do you at least know where we’re going?”
“I have a very good idea,” Sara said, glancing east, over the mountain, toward the sea.
Myron shook his head and called for his escort.
Miranda stood with her bare feet in the cold surf. Her soul was open, reaching through the water as far as she could for what she knew wasn’t there. Behind her, Gin and Master Banage sat at the base of the storm wall, watching her with matching worried expressions.
She’d been in the water since before dawn. At first, Banage had been content to let her deal with Mellinor’s loss in her own way. Now, after hours of watching her stand in the water with her open spirit straining far past the point of exhaustion, he decided enough was enough. He stood up slowly and walked across the sand. When he reached his former apprentice, he said nothing, just put his hands on her shoulder and gave her a stiff pull.
After two days without sleep, a raging battle, losing her sea, and now hours of pushing her spirit beyond its limits, one pull was enough. Miranda toppled backward, landing in the sand. She tried to stand up even before she hit, desperate to keep her feet in the water, but Banage was too fast. He slipped between her and the surf, using his larger body as a wall to block her.
“Miranda,” he said softly. “You have to rest.”
Miranda glared at him, but she stopped struggling. She simply didn’t have the strength. “How can I rest?” she said, staring down at the sand, its battle scars already erased by the tide. “How can I just walk away? It’s my fault Mellinor’s—”
“It’s not your fault,” Banage said firmly. “Mellinor knew the risk and asked you to stand against the Empress with him anyway. Now she is defeated, in no small part by your efforts. Rather than mourning, you should be proud that you accomplished what he so wanted so badly.”
“I didn’t do anything!” Miranda cried. “It was Eli who stopped the Empress, and now he’s gone, too.” She rubbed her eyes with her hands. “I sent everybody to their deaths.”
Banage’s eyes narrowed. “That is talk unbecoming of a Spiritualist,” he said. “You did exactly what you should, your duty. You protected the spirit’s will from the human who would have crushed it. But our duty is never done, Miranda. The Empress is gone, but we have as much ahead of us as behind. If you let guilt over what you could not change cripple you, then Mellinor’s sacrifice will have been in vain.”
His hand shot forward, hanging in the air inches from Miranda’s face. “Get up, Spiritualist Lyonette.”
Still crying, Miranda took her master’s hand. Banage pulled her to her feet and turned her away from the sea. Gin trotted over to meet them, sliding his broad head under Miranda’s arm. She smiled a little then, tangling her fingers in his coarse, shifting fur as he helped her to the stairs from the beach.
But when they reached the broken walkway at the top of the storm wall, Banage stopped suddenly. He was staring up the hill, his face, pale and drawn from the night’s horrors, going paler still. Still on the stair, Miranda leaned on Gin to peer around her master to see what had stopped him. Given how still he’d gone, Miranda was braced for something horrible—a reactivated war spirit, or the fires bolting up again. What she saw was even worse: a squad of soldiers in the Whitefall family’s white and silver riding down the mountain with Sara at their head.
Her hand went for Banage’s sleeve at once, but the Rector just shook his head. “It was only a matter of time.”
Miranda refused to believe that. “They can’t mean to keep pressing the charge of treason,” she said. “You defied Whitefall’s initial order to fight the Empress for the Council, but you helped defeat her in the end. Surely that makes things even.”
“The end doesn’t matter,” Banage said.
“How does it not matter?” Miranda cried. “The Council got what it wanted. You fought! If they bring a charge of treason against you for this, it’ll break the Spirit Court between those who are loyal to you and those who want to join the Council. The Merchant Prince needs us, he needs the Court whole and functioning. Why would he keep forcing the issue now that everything has already worked itself out?”
“I might have fought the Empress at the end,” Banage said, reaching down to brush his rings as the riders closed in. “But I defied Whitefall’s command.”
“That’s worth wrecking his greatest wizard allies?” Miranda said.
“The Merchant Prince risks more than the Court by appearing weak on traitors,” Banage said calmly, raising his glowing rings.
Miranda cursed under her breath and reached for her rings as well. She didn’t know what good it would do. She had nothing left to give her spirits. Anything stronger than her moss might well knock her out for the day. Still, she intended to back her Rector no matter what. But, to her great surprise, Master Banage didn’t call any of his spirits. Instead, he pulled the ring from his left middle finger and reached out, pressing it into Miranda’s palm.
She looked down in amazement. It was the heavy gold band set with the perfect circle of the Court that all Spiritualists received the day they took their oaths. Banage’s ring was larger than her own, warm, and surprisingly heavy. Far heavier, in fact, than it should have been.
“It’s not gold,” Banage said, as though reading her thoughts. “Look inside.”
Miranda turned the ring in her hand, and her eyes widened. The gold ended there, worn off by years of use to reveal the white stone core beneath.
“That is the Rector’s Ring,” Banage said. “The direct link between the head of the Court and the spirit of the Tower.”
“But,” Miranda whispered, remembering the heavy gold collar set with the flashing gems, Banage’s mark of office, “I thought—”
“The collar is a tool,” Banage said. “It makes feeding power to the Tower easier, but it is not necessary. That ring is the link that forms the heart of the Rector’s power. It’s difficult to use, but I expect you to master it before you need it in earnest, which may well be very soon.”
“No,” Miranda said, thrusting the ring back at him. “Why are you giving it to me? You’re the Rector. If that ring is the connection to the Tower, then it belongs with you. I can’t—”
“Now is not the time to be willfully ignorant, Miranda,” Banage said, his voice dangerous. He glanced at the riders, now only a hundred feet away. “I defied the Council knowing very well how it would end, but I did what I did because I thought it the right thing to do, and I have no qualms about paying for it. But the world is changing quickly. Now more than ever, the Spirit Court must be united. We must make peace among ourselves and the Council if we are to uphold our duty in the days to come.” He met her eyes again. “Whatever you believe, the Council sees me as a traitor now. A traitor cannot make peace. But a young woman, a Spiritualist beloved by spirits great and small as well as a former agent for the Council, she could.”
“No, she couldn’t!” Miranda cried. “It’s you we need, Master Banage. You’re our Rector. I won’t leave you to Sara!”
Banage grabbed her hands, and Miranda stilled at once. She was so tired, so weak, she couldn’t fight him. She had no will to fight Banage anyway. He peeled her fingers apart, pulling off her own golden ring from her left ring finger before deftly sliding the Rector’s ring down in its place.
Banage’s ring hung below her knuckle. The masculine gold circle was far too large for her, but even as Miranda was wondering how she would ever keep it on, the ring began to change. The gold-covered stone slithered like a living thing, warm and fluttering against her skin as it cinched itself to a perfect fit. When it was settled, the ring lay still against her skin as though it had always been there. Miranda tensed, waiting to feel something, a brush of a spirit across her mind, a voice, but there was nothing. The moment the ring stopped moving, all proof that it was anything other than a simple gold ring vanished save only for the suspicious warmth and oppressive weight.
Banage nodded and released her hand. “It won’t fully open for you until you’re confirmed as Rector,” he said, turning to face the riders. “That may or may not happen, depending on the Tower Keeper’s vote, but it will do for now. You must call the Conclave as soon as possible.”
“Conclave?” Miranda whispered. The Conclave was the most sacred Spiritualist gathering, called only in dire emergency. Every Spiritualist had to attend or forfeit their oaths. “How could I call one? There hasn’t been a Conclave in nearly a hundred years.”
Banage smiled. “High time for one then, I’d say.” The Council troops were almost on top of them now, and Banage pulled himself straight. “Wipe your eyes. Sara preys on weakness.”
Startled, Miranda scrubbed her eyes as the riders circled them. Sara pulled her borrowed horse to a stop a few feet from Banage and dismounted stiffly. The man beside her, a middle-aged officer Miranda recognized as the one who’d helped Sara surround the Spirit Court Tower before the Court had left Zarin the day before, stayed in his saddle, watching with the bored detachment of a soldier doing his duty as Sara faced her husband.
“You were wise not to run, Etmon,” she said. “You’ve spared your Court the indignity of watching their Rector be hunted down like a common criminal.”
Banage lifted his chin. “Considering how bad the Council is at catching common criminals, perhaps I should have taken my chances.”
Sara sniffed. “Your agents haven’t done much better, as I recall.”
“At least my agent managed to actually make contact once in a while,” Banage said, holding out his hands. “Shall we get this over with?”
Sara pushed his hands away with a smile. “Don’t be silly. We both know no common restraints can hold you.” She stepped forward, sliding her arm around Banage’s. “Until we return to Zarin, I am your manacles. It’ll be just like old time, won’t it, Etmon?”
Banage said nothing, but Miranda saw his shoulders sink at Sara’s touch.
“Now,” Sara said, lifting Banage’s hand to get a look at his rings, “Myron here brought the loyalist Tower Keepers with him. Alber would prefer if you named one of them as interim Rector. Where’s your ring?”
“With her,” Banage nodded over his shoulder at Miranda. “Spiritualist Lyonette has agreed to serve as Rector and lead the Spirit Court until a vote can be taken.”
“Her?” Sara glared at Miranda. “Really, Etmon, playing favorites to the end? It won’t look good, you putting another traitor at the head of the Court. The Council may start believing that all Spiritualists share your rebellious tendencies.”
“I don’t care what the Council believes,” Banage said. “The Spirit Court is an independent body, and it will govern itself as its members see fit.”
“Yes, yes,” Sara said, looking away from Miranda with a superior smirk. “We’ll see how long that lasts.”
She motioned, and the soldiers fell in around them. Banage climbed onto the horse Sara had ridden down and Sara climbed up behind him, wrapping her arms around the Rector’s waist in a way that reminded Miranda of a hawk’s talons wrapping around a rabbit.
Miranda started forward, her mouth open to object, but Banage’s eyes stopped her in her tracks. She stood frozen as the Council troops turned and galloped up the mountain, taking Banage away toward the city. When they were gone, Gin pressed his cold nose into her side.
“I would have eaten them for you,” he said.
“I would have eaten them, too,” Miranda answered, rubbing her eyes. “Come on, we have to find the others. I’ve got some tough news to deliver.”
Gin knelt. As soon as Miranda was safely on his back, he took off up the hill. Miranda clung to his fur as they passed the Council guards. She didn’t look at Banage as they rode by. She didn’t look at the sea behind her. She only looked forward, toward the city, the core of loyal Spiritualists who waited there, and all that must be done.
Nico opened her eyes and saw nothing but blackness. For a long moment she lay perfectly still, fighting to keep the panic from overwhelming her mind. Then something moved over her face and she realized she was staring into the wraps of her coat. She sank into the soft bed with a relieved, almost embarrassed sigh and tilted her head. Her coat obeyed instantly, sliding off her to reveal Josef’s bedroom.
She sat up, pushing back the covers, then paused. The blankets next to her were rumpled. She slid her hand over them. The coverlet was warm, as though someone had been lying on top of it, and from the sloughed-off pile of throwing knives on the chest at the end of the bed, she had a pretty good idea who.
Pulling her hood up to hide her blush, Nico swung her legs around and stood up. The room was dark, not that it mattered to her, but the flavor of the dark suggested it was night. A line of yellow light shone under the door leading to the sitting room, and Nico could hear soft voices on the other side, followed by the clink of silverware.
She crossed the bedroom, bare feet silent on the wooden floor, and paused at the door. For a moment, she considered stepping through the shadows so she could see what was waiting before she entered the other room, but something held her back. Something was different now. She could see the world of spirits clearer than ever, but even they couldn’t hide the darkness that seeped along the edges of her vision. It was swirling like inky water, the tendrils reaching for her whenever she looked away.
She’d noticed them when she first woke up the night she and Miranda had watched Eli vanish. Then she’d thought it was a side effect of her injuries, but she felt fine now, and the darkness was still there. She slid her eyes to the side of her sockets, trying to catch more, but the tendrils slid away every time she tried to look at them straight on. But the more she tried to catch a glimpse of it, the more Nico realized the swirling dark wasn’t actually new. The blackness had always been there. She was just noticing it now, because now Nico knew what it was. She’d seen it for herself when she’d looked down at her body during the fight with Den. The swirling darkness was her. Her true form. The malicious, grasping shadows weren’t some trick of the demon or the seed repairing her injuries. She was seeing the edges of her own eyes.
You wish it was me, don’t you? The demon’s voice seeped through the back of her mind like cold water. At least then you’d have someone to blame. But whom do you blame now that you’re the monster?
Nico clenched her teeth and slammed her will down hard. The demon’s voice vanished, leaving only silence. When she was certain she was completely in control, Nico turned away from the shadows and seized the door handle, pushing it open with a loud click.
Josef and the other man looked up in unison. They were sitting at the table by the fireplace. Josef was eating dinner, and his side of the small table was buried under a plate of roast beef, a pitcher of water, and a basket with bread with a vial of flavored oil. The other man was far older, though much of that age may have been an illusion caused by the lamps casting shadows into the deep, deep worry lines that crossed his face. His side of the table was covered in ledgers and reports, and neither he nor the king looked happy with their contents.
Josef’s frown deepened the moment he saw her. “Nico, go back to bed. There’s no way you should be up yet.”
“I’m fine,” Nico said, eying his plate. “Hungry more than anything.”
Josef grabbed a spare chair and pulled it up beside his. “Eat,” he said gruffly. “And then back to bed.”
Nico bit her lip to hide her smile as she walked over and took her seat. Josef piled a plate high with meat and bread before plopping it in front of her. Only when she’d taken her first bite and was well on the way to her second did he turn back to the man with the ledgers.
The old man began to drum his fingers nervously against his papers as he made every effort not to look in Nico’s direction. “My lord, these are matters of Osera’s national—”
“If you can say it to me, you can say it in front of her,” Josef said, shoving a fresh roll into his mouth.
“I’m sorry, your majesty.” The old man shifted uncomfortably. “But I don’t believe I know your young lady, and I’m afraid I cannot divulge information this sensitive to—”
“Powers,” Josef muttered around his mouthful of bread. He jabbed his thumb at Nico. “Nico, this is Lord Obermal, my, um—”
“Keeper of the treasury of Osera,” the old man supplied.
“Right,” Josef said. “Treasury Keeper, Nico. Nico, Treasury Keeper. Now that we all know each other, can we get on with this?”
The old man went paler still, and Nico had to take a large bite to keep from laughing. Actually, she knew exactly who Lord Obermal was. She’d kept an eye on him while Eli and Josef had infiltrated the castle that first night in Osera. She just hoped the old treasurer didn’t connect the strange case of the missing audit officials with his prince’s sudden appearance, or, if he did, that he had the good sense not to mention it.
“Very well, my lord,” Obermal continued at last, pushing a ledger toward Josef. “As I was saying, your mother, may she rest in peace, extended nearly all of Osera’s reserves preparing to meet the Empress. Our gold supply is at a critical level, and with the extensive damage to the city, especially to the docks and roads, we cannot expect to levy enough tax revenue to meet our basic obligations, much less the needs of Osera’s citizenry for repairs to the basic infrastructure required for—”
“So we’re broke,” Josef said. “Too broke to rebuild, but we can’t get money until we rebuild because everything’s too wrecked to do business.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Obermal said with a long sigh. “As I just said—”
“So how do we get money?” Josef interrupted again.
Lord Obermal stiffened. “If my lord would allow me to finish.” He waited until Josef nodded before continuing. “We have no choice but to borrow from the Council. Until the full damage reports are in, I can’t say for certain how much we’ll need, but if the numbers so far are any indication—”
“No,” Josef said, crossing his arms.
Lord Obermal blinked. “No to what, my lord?”
“No, I’m not going to go begging money from the Council,” Josef said. “Whose skin do you think we saved stopping the Empress? If it wasn’t for Osera, it’d be their houses on fire, not ours. They should be falling over themselves to help us.”
“That’s not the way the Council works, sire,” Lord Obermal said, his voice taking on the patient air of a tutor with an exceptionally stupid child. “The Council of Thrones is an economic and defensive agreement for the mutual benefit of all countries. Though I’m sure our fellows in the Council are very grateful to Osera for stopping the Empress and will almost certainly grant us a very favorable rate of interest in any loan for rebuilding, you can’t possibly ask them to just give—”
“Interest?” Josef roared, slamming his chair against the floor as he lurched forward. “You mean those bastards want to make a profit off rebuilding the country that saved their lives? Are you kidding me?”
“There are several precedents, my lord,” Obermal said gently.
“Forget it,” Josef said, shaking his head. “Forget the whole thing. There is no way I’m borrowing money from that Council of vultures who couldn’t even be bothered to show up to fight their own war until eight hours after the Empress was gone.”
“But the repairs must be made!” Lord Obermal cried. “And there’s simply no other way to raise that sort of capital. The Council’s the only body large enough to offer the amounts we will require.”
“How much?” Josef said.
Obermal paused. “Pardon?”
“How much are we talking about?”
Obermal began rifling through his papers. “I couldn’t be sure without—”
Josef rolled his eyes. “Guess.”
“Yes, sire,” Obermal ran his fingers down a list of figures. “If I had to guess, and mind you, this is almost certainly a gross underestimation, but if I had to make a blind guess based on incomplete information for the cost of rebuilding the docks and all the infrastructure in Osera, I’d say it could be anywhere from a hundred and fifty to three hundred thousand gold standards.”
“Oh,” Josef said, sitting back. “Is that all?”
“Is that all?” Obermal cried, forgetting himself as his face turned scarlet. “I don’t know how much money you handled as a murderer for hire, Thereson, but Osera is one of the most prosperous countries in the Council, and we pull in, at most, a hundred and twenty thousand per a year, including our tax on sea traffic. Even if my lowest estimates were correct, which I can assure you they aren’t, it would take one and a half years of Osera’s pre-Empress income to save that much money, assuming of course we didn’t pay for anything else during that time, so no guards, no servants, no social services, no garbage men or lamp lighters. And let’s not forget that level of income is impossible now since our docks are destroyed.” The treasurer shook his head. “It can’t be done. We cannot raise that kind of money on our own, not unless you want the repairs to take twenty years. Your mother borrowed Council funds the last time the Empress destroyed Osera, and it was the salvation of our island. The least you can do is try to follow her good example.”
Josef leaned back, glaring at the old man as he finally fell silent.
“Are you done?”
Obermal went very still, his eyes growing wide as he realized what he’d just done. “Yes, sire,” he whispered. “Forgive me. It’s been a very stressful time for our office, and—”
“It’s been a stressful time for everyone,” Josef said. “Forget it. I’d rather you say what you think rather than have the truth all muddled up with flattery. Anyway, I’ve got an idea that could make this all very easy. Nico?”
Nico looked up from what was left of her slab of roast.
Josef flashed her a huge grin. “It seems Osera’s short on cash. Since Eli’s not around for me to shake down at the moment, can I borrow your prize?”
“My prize?” Nico scowled in confusion, and then, like a flash, she got it. “Oh,” she said, returning his smile. “Of course.”
“Right.” Josef turned to his treasurer. “That’s settled then. Go get what’s-his-name, the Whitefall, and have him met me downstairs.”
“Lord Myron?” Obermal looked appalled. “What do you need him for?”
“He’s the highest ranking Council man here, right?” Josef said, standing up. “I have business with the Council, so he’ll have to do. Just send him down and we’ll handle it. Believe it or not, I actually have some experience with this sort of thing.” His grin grew feral. “I did used to be a bounty hunter, after all.”
Nico couldn’t help smirking at that as she shoved the last of her dinner into her mouth. Meanwhile, Josef ducked back into the bedroom for his knives. Lord Obermal just watched, his eyes growing wider and wider, like he was waiting to see how things could get any worse. “Are you sure I can’t assist—”
“What part of ‘go get Whitefall’ didn’t you understand?” Josef said, picking up the Heart from its resting place by the fire.
Lord Obermal jumped up. “Yes, my lord. I’ll have him sent to you at once.”
Josef nodded, watching the old treasurer as he gathered his ledgers and excused himself, bowing deeply before shutting the door. When he was gone, Nico stood and stretched, popping her joints.
“If Eli were here, I think this is where he’d say that you should try being a little nicer to your staff,” she said.
Josef snorted. “If Eli were here, I’d ignore him. Anyway, if there’s one thing I did learn from my mother, it’s that sometimes you have to roll over people if you want to get anything done.” He stopped a moment, checking his knives again. When he was confident they were all accounted for, he jerked his head toward the door.
Nico nodded and fell in beside him, following the king into the hall and down the stairs toward the burned-out western wing.
Myron Whitefall looked up from his dinner with an incredulous scowl. “He wants what?”
“The servant said King Josef wants to meet with you,” his guard repeated. “Says it’s urgent.”
“It better well be urgent,” Myron grumbled, pushing back from the table with a shove that almost toppled his wineglass. “I finally have a moment’s peace now that Sara’s taking her freak show back to Zarin, and the vagabond king of Osera wants me to spend it with him? He’d better have the Empress on a leash.”
The guard smiled. “Do you want us to escort you, sir? Just in case he does?”
“I should only be so lucky,” Myron said with a laugh. “Stay and finish your dinner. You deserve it after the march you boys pulled to get to this ungrateful speck of an island. Arrived just in time to be insulted, didn’t we? I think I can handle the king on my own. He probably just wants to tell me again what a horrible job the Council’s doing.”
“Thank you for your sacrifice, sir,” the guard said, grinning as he saluted.
Myron chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. “As you were, as you were.”
He left his men laughing as they returned to their dinner and followed the Oseran servant down the stairs. The short trip took far longer than it should, mostly because the palace was so badly damaged they had to keep taking detours around broken walls and collapsing floorboards. The servant wasn’t helping things either. He set a maddeningly slow pace, stopping every few steps to apologize for the state of the castle and the lateness of the king’s summons.
This last type of apology was delivered with such sincerity that Myron got the distinct impression the man was ashamed not just of his king’s rudeness but of the king himself. Myron couldn’t blame him. It was common knowledge across the Council that Theresa’s son was a disgrace to her kingdom, a runaway turned thief or vagabond or some such unpleasantness. Osera had had a double swing of bad luck to get such a king and the Empress at the same time. So unlucky that it might well be better if the Council took over the island until a more suitable ruler could be found. Annexation would be unpopular, but anything was preferable to letting an incompetent king kick over an already weakened state. Myron made a mental note to discuss the subject with Alber as the servant finally ushered him into what was left of the palace’s west wing.
He froze as the door opened. The servant had taken him to the very bottom of the palace, into a large, long room that looked as if it had been built to serve as a cold cellar. Whatever its original purpose, however, it had been superseded by the grisly needs of Osera’s current crisis.
Myron had been raised to be a soldier. He’d seen conflict since he was a boy, but even the life of a professional warrior hadn’t prepared him for the sheer number of corpses piled into what was now Osera’s make-shift morgue. Oseran soldiers lay in rows, their bodies respectfully covered with clean, white cloths. Some had names painted across their chest; others had not yet been identified. There were civilian dead here as well—men, women, even children, covered and waiting for their mourning families to identify them.
Though the cellar was cold and most of the bodies were less than a day old, the air was still full of the smell of decay. Myron cursed and covered his face, wishing the messenger had come before he’d started eating. He looked around for the king, eager to get this over with and get out of this cold, foul smelling place of death. He spotted the towering King Josef immediately, standing at the far end of the morgue with another, much shorter figure in a coat whose gender and face Myron couldn’t make out.
The servant bowed one last time and made himself scarce, leaving Myron to pick his own way through the bodies to the king. Josef didn’t even have the good grace to greet him, just looked up and nodded, motioning for Myron to join him.
“This had better be important,” Myron said, holding his hand over his nose as he glared at the king. “If you brought me down here just to garner sympathy for Osera’s fallen, you’re wasting both of our time. The Council has already offered ample assistance as stipulated by the treaties.”
“Don’t worry, I didn’t call you down for a sob case,” Josef said. “This is a business matter. These poor souls will be burned tomorrow, once we’ve finished purging the Empress’s filth.”
Myron thought of the billowing pillar of smoke he’d seen rising from the eastern side of the island. Burning the enemy first was typical. With no one to mourn them, they could be disposed of faster, leaving more time to honor your own dead. But that smoke had been rising since he had arrived that morning. If they hadn’t started burning Oserans yet, how many of the Empress’s troops must they have slaughtered to keep a pyre that large going all day?
“Business, eh?” Myron said, his voice a shade more respectful. “What business needs discussing in a morgue?”
“It wasn’t like we had anywhere else to put him,” Josef said, nudging the nearest body with the toe of his boot. “But I would have hauled him up for you if I’d know you were squeamish.”
Myron bristled and glared down at the corpse by Josef’s feet. It was different than the others, set off on its own and covered with a square of old sail rather than a white sheet. The dead man had been enormous in life, obviously a warrior, and he’d died a warrior’s death if the blood clotted on the sail was any indication.
Before he could ask, Josef leaned down and grabbed the edge of the cloth, pulling the shroud back just enough for Myron to clearly see the dead man’s face. Myron wasn’t sure what to expect, but the face he saw was enough to shock even him into silence. After all, it was a face every Council citizen knew. There, lying dead on the floor of an Oseran cellar, was Den the Warlord, the first and greatest criminal in Council history.
The king smiled at his expression and pulled Den’s poster out of his pocket, its corners freshly ripped from being pulled off whatever bounty board Josef had snatched it from.
“Dead or alive,” Josef read. “Five hundred thousand gold standards.”
Myron looked from Den to Josef and back again. “You killed Den the Warlord?”
“Not me,” Josef said. “She did.”
He nodded to the figure behind him. Myron squinted in the low light, and then nearly laughed out loud as a thin hand pushed back the hood to reveal the face of a young, frail girl.
“She?” Myron couldn’t help himself; he started to laugh. “You’re telling me a little girl killed the greatest fighter in the Council? Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“I’m beginning to,” Josef said flatly. “You can try her yourself if you want proof.”
Behind him, the girl closed her hand into a fist, cracking her knuckles as she did. All at once, Myron began to feel very cold, weak almost, and strangely afraid. Myron Whitefall was many things, but he wasn’t a fool. As the feeling started to build, he decided to drop the issue.
“Who killed him isn’t important,” he said, rubbing his suddenly clammy hands on his trousers. “What matters is that Den’s dead.”
“Glad we agree,” Josef said, dropping the cloth to cover Den’s face again. “Now,” he smiled, “about the money…”
Myron began to sweat. This was bad, far too bad for him to handle. Better stall and pass it to Alber, he decided. Make the old stuffed shirt work for his title.
“I’m afraid I don’t have anything to do with the bounties,” Myron said in his most official voice. “You’ll have to bring him to Zarin and submit your request through the proper channels.”
To his surprise, Josef nodded. “Fair enough. Couldn’t really expect you to have that kind of cash on hand. Thank you, general. We’ll bring him to Zarin immediately. In the meanwhile, I hope you’ll keep this in mind as you plan your aid for Osera’s rebuilding.”
Myron sighed through clenched teeth. The threat in the king’s voice wasn’t even veiled. Did this oaf know nothing of statecraft? Still, he smiled and made all the correct polite noises, excusing himself from the king’s presence. The second he was out of the morgue, he started to run. He made it back to the room he’d been given in a third the time it had taken the servant to lead him down, shouting for his Relay point before he was properly through the door.
His soldiers brought it at once. Myron grabbed the glass sphere and shook it violently. The second it turned the bright blue that meant it was working, he began shouting for Alber. He had to warn the Merchant Prince, or it was very likely that the bounty no one ever expected to come home could ruin them all.
As the tiny ball of the sun sank below the horizon inside Benehime’s sphere, the Lady pulled the man in her lap closer, nuzzling his neck.
Are you tried, love?
Eli kept stone still and said nothing.
You must be tired, the Shepherdess said, running her lips up his neck to nuzzle the edge of his hair. You’ve been up for over a day now. Your bed is just as you left it. Wouldn’t you like to sleep?
Eli was tired, so tired that the only reason he wasn’t asleep already was the constant burn of Benehime’s touch. He longed to pass out and forget everything, if only for a few hours, but he didn’t answer immediately. Something about the way Benehime asked bothered him. After a day spent clinging to him like a possessive cat with a piece of fish, she suddenly seemed almost eager to be rid of him. The change made him curious, and against his better judgment, Eli decided to push a bit.
“How could I be tired?” he said, looking at her with a blinding smile. “I’m with you.”
Benehime arched an eyebrow. Now’s not the time to be clever, love. You must sleep. You just came home. I can’t have you jeopardizing your health first thing, can I?
She reached out and plucked the air. Instantly, a white bed appeared beside them.
Eli nearly groaned. The white silk bed he’d slept on for four years looked exactly as it had when he’d left. He remembered how impressed he’d been when she’d first presented it to him, how he’d fawned over the downy softness and the subtle pattern woven into the silk by the worms themselves. Now, the soft square on the floor reminded him of nothing so much as the sort of bed rich ladies in Zarin had made for their pampered dogs to sleep in. But being with the Shepherdess in her white world had brought the old habits back, and Eli hid his disgust behind a warm smile as he sank down onto the soft cushion.
There, Benehime said, leaning over to kiss his head one last time. Rest, love. Maybe tomorrow you’ll remember that living with me isn’t so bad. I’m not far if you need me. See you in the morning, my darling.
She stroked his head a final time and turned to walk back to her sphere. Eli shivered as the air solidified behind her, locking him in. That was new. She’d never bothered locking him up before, but then, a lot had changed.
He reached out experimentally, running his hand over the invisible wall. There was just enough space for him to sit up without knocking his head, but that was it. He lay back on the bed with a sigh, grateful at least that she’d made it so large all those years ago, seeing as he was a foot taller now than he’d been at fifteen. Even so, it was a tight fit, and he propped his feet up on the invisible wall as he wiggled out of the ridiculous white coat she’d made him wear.
He glanced sideways at Benehime. She was sitting by her sphere about fifteen feet away, staring intensely at the floating world and not, for once, at him. Eli sighed in relief and spread the coat over his chest like a blanket. When it was in place, he slid his hands beneath it and began unbuttoning his crisp white shirt. He shoved the cloth aside, leaving his chest bare, and then, hands shaking, he ran his fingers over Karon’s burn, touching the lava spirit hesitantly with his will at the same time.
From the moment she’d brought him here, Eli hadn’t felt the lava spirit stir. But despite his fears, the Shepherdess had been true to her word. Karon woke instantly, his heat rising to meet Eli’s touch. The rush of relief hit Eli so hard he was forced to look away before he cried again. Once was bad enough; twice in a twenty-four-hour period was unforgivable.
“Welcome back,” he said when he could trust his voice again.
Karon didn’t answer. His fire trembled in Eli’s chest, pulling back as deep as he could into Eli’s body. When he spoke at last, his voice was a trembling, smoky whisper.
“Why are we in the Between?”
It took Eli a minute to remember that the Between was what the spirits called Benehime’s white world, when they spoke of it at all.
“I ran out of escapes,” Eli said, staring up at the endless white as he pressed himself deeper into the bed. “Caught at last, and by my own hand no less. Some thief, eh?”
“We shouldn’t be in the Between,” Karon whispered. “It’s too close. We need to leave.”
“Yes, well, tell that to the Shepherdess,” Eli said bitterly. “She’s the one who locked us in here.”
Karon’s voice was thick with confusion, and Eli sighed. The spirit probably couldn’t even see the walls. They were a nice little pen made just for a human.
“Karon,” he said, kicking the invisible wall at his feet. “What do you see in front of us?”
“Nothing,” Karon said. “Just white forever and forever and…” His voice trailed off. “Wait, there is something.” The heat intensified as Karon’s smoke curled up from the burn, brushing against the invisible barrier like curious fingers. “There’s a wall,” the lava spirit said. “It’s so white I couldn’t see it. I think it’s all around us.”
“You think correctly,” Eli said. “I see nothing, but we’re trapped all the same.”
“Can’t you make a door?” Karon said. “I mean, if you’re here, then you’re back to being the favorite for real, right? So it shouldn’t be a problem anymore.”
Eli laughed out loud. “Not that simple, friend. You were out, so you missed my glorious defeat, but the long and short of it is that I lost, and now I’m back to being a good little dog. Probably forever.” He winced at the thought and turned his head, pulling the jacket up to cover his face in a vain attempt to shut out some of the blinding white. “Powers, how did I ever sleep like this?”
“You can’t be serious,” Karon said. “Eli Monpress? Roll over? I refuse to believe it.”
Eli peeked over the coat at Benehime, but she was completely absorbed in whatever she was doing with her sphere.
“Believe it,” he said quietly. “Even if I found a way out, I wouldn’t take it. Not now. The woman proved she was willing to start a war just to make me give in and ask for help. Can you imagine what she’d do to Nico and Josef if I ran away?”
Suddenly, he was so angry he was shaking. “I have no more illusions,” he whispered. “Benehime’s crazy. Maybe she’s always been crazy, but I know she wouldn’t hesitate a moment to do whatever she had to in order to keep me here. If I ran, she wouldn’t even think before killing Josef or Nico, killing you, killing anything she thought could get me to come back. And since I gave up my freedom to save your hides, I’m not exactly in the mood to throw them away again on an escape attempt.” He closed his eyes. “What I want to know is, when did I become the bloody hero?”
“You can’t stay here, Eli,” Karon rumbled. “It’ll kill you. She’ll break you for good.”
“I’m not that fragile,” Eli said, rolling over so that his back was to Benehime.
It was a good lie, but as he stared off into the blank white of Benehime’s world and thought of his future, Eli had to admit he was starting to feel a little suicidal. However bad the mists were, they couldn’t be worse than this endless, changeless future of being Benehime’s lap dog.
“It can’t last forever,” he said, trying his best to sound confident. “As the Lord of Storms loves to point out, I’m not the first favorite, and I won’t be the last. I’m sure she was just as devoted to Nara at the beginning.” And just look what happened to her, he thought grimly.
“Eli, please,” Karon said. “Benehime is my Shepherdess and I cannot speak against her, but I can speak for you, and I’m begging—don’t give up. Don’t let her beat you like this. The Shepherdess has changed over the last few centuries, and not for the better. Do you remember how you found me?”
Eli smiled. “How could I forget?” Lava spirits weren’t stone or fire, but a mix of both. That dual nature made them extremely argumentative, especially with each other, and before too long the great stone spirit who held them would get fed up and kick them out, which is why volcanoes were constantly blowing. “Your volcano threw you out right on top of our heads while Giuseppe and I were robbing the King of Ser blind. Cost us two golden lions, though the chaos left by the fire made for a nice escape.”
“The volcano didn’t throw me out,” Karon said quietly. “We were forced out. The volcano wanted to go dormant and it forced us out so it could sleep. But it’s a volcano’s purpose to hold us lava spirits. That’s why it exists. Used to be if a spirit did something like that, violated its purpose and left the spirits in its charge to die, the Shepherdess would be there to knock some sense into it. But she wasn’t. Of all my brothers, only I survived, and only because you were there to take me in before my fire died out completely.”
“Never let it be said the Shepherdess took her job too seriously,” Eli said bitterly.
“It’s not just negligence,” Karon said. “Gredit was right. She’s ignoring the world on purpose. It’s almost like she actively hates us now. The only one she doesn’t hate is you, and that scares me, Eli. The Shepherdess is supposed to be our guardian, our caretaker, but she was willing to crush all of Osera just to get you to give in.” Karon fluttered nervously in his chest. “I don’t know what’s happening, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.”
“Add it to the list,” Eli said, rolling onto his stomach with a sigh.
“You have to do something,” Karon hissed. “If you won’t save yourself and escape, then maybe you can get the Shepherdess to change, but you can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
“You think I like this?” Eli snapped. “I hate being here. I hate every second of it, but I told you, that woman is crazy. I was the one who made myself weak. I was stupid enough to get attached to that dumb swordsman and his demonseed and the Spiritualist and all the other poor saps I care about. The whole war was my fault. I could have stopped it at any time, just like Miranda said, but I didn’t. I held out for my pride and people died, so now I’m going to sit here and be a good dog and maybe everyone I’ve cursed by calling them friend will get to live a little longer. Including you.”
“Don’t do this to yourself, Eli,” Karon said. “Don’t make yourself a martyr.”
“You think I’m selfless enough to be a martyr?” Eli said, punching the bed as he rolled over again. “Whose body have you been living in all these years? I’m the thief, remember? I’m just taking the path of least resistance.”
“Yeah, right,” Karon hissed, and Eli winced as his burn began to ache with the lava spirit’s anger. “Well, I’ll just leave you to your misery, then, favorite. When you’re done sulking, let me know, and we’ll figure out how to beat this together. Until then, I’m going to sleep. Maybe this will all turn out to be a dream.”
“I didn’t know spirits had dreams,” Eli grumbled into the bed.
“We don’t,” Karon said. “But I’d kill for one right now. Anything to get out of here.”
Eli closed his eyes as the lava spirit sank into him and fell into a grumbling sleep. Karon was probably right. He probably should be planning an escape, or at least a new plot to get Benehime to let him go of her own will again, but he just couldn’t summon up the energy to care. He could almost feel Benehime’s hand on his throat. She had him good and tight now, and every time he tried to think about the future, all he could see was endless white.
He’d been so arrogant, thinking he could run forever. He’d forgotten the first rule of thievery: no one runs forever. That was why you had to fence your goods and move on. But he’d just kept running, thinking he was smart, thinking he could do it all on his own. Now Josef’s island was destroyed, Nico was nearly dead, Mellinor was lost, and that was just the tip of the iceberg of things that were his fault.
Unbidden, his mind went back to that day in the forest when he’d tricked Benehime into letting him go. He’d thought of that moment daily since then, usually with pride. His freedom was what he’d always fought for, but now he saw that first con in a different light. If he’d known how bitterly things would end, would he still have made the deal?
Eli rolled violently, kicking the wall with his feet. He didn’t like the way this was going, and he didn’t want to think about it anymore. He tossed and turned, throwing the white jacket into the corner. As always, the temperature in the Between hovered just slightly cooler than was pleasant, but he couldn’t stand having her white all over him. He flopped over again, slamming his head angrily into the soft, white pillow and found himself facing Benehime.
She was sitting in front of her sphere exactly as she’d been since he lay down. Her profile was toward him, probably so she could keep an eye on him while she watched the world, he realized sourly. But her eyes weren’t looking at him now. They were locked on the sphere, and her mouth was moving.
Eli’s eyes darted back and forth, but he didn’t see anyone, not even the Lord of Storms. Didn’t hear anything, either. Thankful to have something to puzzle over besides his own misery, he scooted to the edge of the bed to get a better look.
It was night inside the glistening globe. The sea was dark and calm, the mountains still. The moon rode high in the sky, its light a pale reflection of Benehime’s own as her hands rested on the curve of the sky. Her gaze was fixed on the ocean, but other than her mouth, she wasn’t moving at all. After five minutes of this, Eli was about to dismiss the whole thing as another of her eccentricities when her lips stopped moving, curving instead into a smile that turned his blood to ice water.
Without warning, her hands pressed down, passing through the sphere’s sky like she was pressing through the surface of a soap bubble. Her white fingers turned transparent the second they entered, but Eli could still make out the edges of her hands as they descended through the night and plunged into the dark sea below.
Eli watched in stunned silence as Benehime reached into the sea up to her elbows, going down so far that her fingers must have scraped the very bottom of the ocean floor. Her hands fished around for a moment, and then Eli saw her muscles clench, tightening her fingers into a fist. Her sickening smile grew wider as Benehime began to pull.
And that was when her eyes moved toward Eli.
Only years spent as a thief let him react fast enough. In the blink of an eye he was asleep, his body splayed, his breaths even and deep, his eyes closed. The white world was silent, but he didn’t dare move. He stayed that way until his muscles were aching from stress. Only when he was sure not even Benehime could draw a connection between the movement and what had just happened did he risk a look.
Body as slack as a rag, he rolled over, cracking his eyes as he did. Benehime was sitting exactly as she had been before, but her hands were at her sides now, and her mouth was closed in a quiet smile. The sphere floated same as always, and though the ocean looked a little choppy, there was no other sign that anything had happened.
Frowning, Eli turned again, trying for a better look, but then Benehime glanced at him. This time he didn’t have a chance to fake, so instead, he caught her eye and gave her a sleepy blink. She smiled indulgently and mouthed, Sleep.
Eli nodded and turned to lie on his back. His heart was thudding in his chest, but he kept his eyes closed. His whole body was wired, and he didn’t feel the least bit sleepy. Even so, he forced his breathing to remain deep and even. He was a good dog now. Good dogs obeyed their mistresses.
Just the thought made him feel ill, but Eli kept it to himself. He lay perfectly still, focusing on his breaths until exhaustion finally took him for real, and he fell into a deep sleep full of white, terrifying dreams.
The minute he drifted off, Benehime rose from her seat beside the sphere, walking silently to stand over her sleeping favorite. When she reached him, she laid her hands on the invisible wall. When Eli didn’t stir, Benehime’s face broke into a wide, sharp smile. Without a sound, her hands passed through the barrier and began to descend toward Eli’s bare chest.
And in his safe haven beneath Eli’s skin, Karon began to scream, but it made no sound at all.
It was midnight when Gin finally trotted through the white gates of Zarin and started up the hill toward the Spirit Court’s Tower. Miranda clung to his back, blinking blearily at the rowdy late-night crowd scrambling to make way for her panting ghosthound. Gin’s trot slumped to a walk as they got closer, but Miranda didn’t try to speed him up. The dog was exhausted. With the run down from the mountains and then the mad dash to Osera and now a night run back to Zarin…well, even ghosthounds had limits.
Of course, Miranda wasn’t doing much better. She’d spent seven hours clutching Gin’s back for dear life as the hound forced his way through roads crowded with soldiers and Oseran refugees. Add to that the hours she’d spent reaching in vain for Mellinor this morning and the battle before that and she was wrung out completely. Clinging to Gin as they wove through the Zarin streets, she felt fragile and stretched, but as the Tower’s moonlit spire came into view, she forced herself to sit straight. She had work to do. Banage had entrusted her with the fate of the Spirit Court. She could not let him down.
When they reached the gate separating the Spirit Court’s district from the rest of Zarin, she motioned for Gin to stop. He lay down for her to dismount and didn’t get up again as she stretched the ride out of her joints.
“Good work,” Miranda said, rubbing the short, coarse fur on the bridge of Gin’s muzzle. “The stables should be still open. Go and get some sleep. I’ll have them bring you a pig as soon as I can.”
“Two pigs,” Gin said and groaned, pushing himself up one last time. “Fat ones.”
“Fat ones,” Miranda promised as the ghosthound walked slowly between the buildings and toward the stables, his patterns swirling sluggishly.
When she was satisfied he would make it to the stables without falling over, Miranda turned and started down the wide boulevard toward the Tower itself. The Spirit Court’s district was silent and empty. All the non-wizards who made a living serving the Court’s human needs had distanced themselves as soon as the Court fell into the Council’s bad graces. The wind whistled between the closed-up buildings, rattling the bolted shutters with a lonely sound. Ahead, the Tower rose like a white bone from the ground, smooth and straight and, Miranda saw with dismay, still sealed against the world, just as Banage had left it after his confrontation with Whitefall’s army.
She climbed the wide steps with trepidation. The great red doors were still lying where they had fallen. In their place, the Tower’s grand entry was a smooth wall of stone. Hesitantly, Miranda laid her knuckled against the cold rock, tapping the Rector’s ring against the Tower’s surface.
She tried again. Nothing. Not even a flicker of movement.
Miranda pulled her hand back and stood there a moment, focusing her mind on the Rector’s ring. Waiting for…she wasn’t sure what. A sign, maybe. A direction. Some hint of what she was supposed to do. Nothing came. The gold ring sat sullen and silent, its stone underside as cold as the Tower against her skin.
Miranda heaved an enormous sigh. She was too tired for this. All she wanted was to get inside to Krigel and call the Conclave before things got any worse than they already were. Holding that goal firmly in mind, Miranda balled her left hand into a fist and slammed it into the stone.
The golden Rector’s ring hit the Tower with a deep, ringing sound, just as hers had when she’d first returned to the sealed Tower days before. That time, the ringing had faded and a tunnel had opened through the stone. This time it only grew louder. The sound doubled and redoubled, filling the air until all of Zarin seemed to be vibrating. And then, without warning, the ringing simply stopped, and as it stopped, the Tower opened.
Stone peeled away from the great doors, the white rock curling like unfurling petals before vanishing again into the smooth stone walls. Gleaming windows winked open up and down the Tower’s spire as the protective layer of stone slid away. At the Tower’s peak, the enormous windows of the Rector’s office reemerged, the thick glass catching the moonlight until the Tower’s top shone like a lighthouse.
The whole transformation took less than a minute, but it was a minute more before Miranda could stop gawking. She looked down at the golden circle of the Rector’s ring. She hadn’t felt anything the whole time—no draw of power, no spirit pressure, just a faint heat against her skin. But the ring was already cooling, and Miranda, too exhausted for mysteries, stumbled gladly into the now-moonlit entry hall where Spiritualist Krigel was running down the stairs to meet her.
“Miranda!” he cried. “What are you doing back so soon? Where’s Banage? Why did he open the Tower?”
Each question came on the heels of the one before it, and Miranda, too tired to form coherent answers, just held up her hand. The Rector’s assistant stopped cold when he saw the ring on her finger, his eyes growing wide and horrified.
“Powers,” he whispered. “He’s not—”
“He’s alive,” Miranda said, lowering her hand. “But we’ve still got problems. We have to call a Conclave right away. Let’s move somewhere private and—”
She’d taken a step toward him as she spoke, but it proved to be one step too many. As her foot hit the floor, her legs gave out. She toppled sideways, landing on her side, too tired to catch herself.
She’d gone limp before she hit, so the fall didn’t hurt like it should have, but even as she realized she was on the ground, she knew for certain she couldn’t get up again. She heard Krigel’s voice giving orders, and then something hard and sweet smelling slid under her body, lifting her off the ground. She looked up to see the lovely crown of a linden tree spreading overhead, its branches cradling her body like a mother’s arms. Krigel was right beside her, the bright green ring on his index finger illuminating his worried, wrinkled face. He said something to the tree, and Miranda felt herself begin to sway as they moved toward the stairs.
The tree’s roots rolled over the smooth stone floor with one wrapped around Krigel’s outstretched hand. He was feeding it, Miranda realized with a flash of worry. Krigel wasn’t a young man anymore. Feeding a tree who had no place to dig its roots was a tall order, especially if you were making it move as well. She should say something, she thought, tell him to stop so she could get one of her own spirits out to carry her. But as she opened her mouth, Krigel gave her a look so sharp it skewered the words before she could speak them.
“If you so much as imply I am too infirm to do my duty as your assistant, Rector Lyonette, I will drop you down these stairs.”
“But I’m not Rector,” Miranda said, or tried to. The words came out in a garbled mumble.
Krigel seemed to understand well enough. “The Rector’s ring doesn’t go to just anyone,” he said. “If Banage gave it to you and the ring accepted the transfer, then you’re Rector enough for me. Now shut your mouth for once and let me do my job.”
Miranda licked her lips. “Pigs,” she whispered.
This time it was Krigel’s turn to look confused. “Excuse me?”
“Gin’s in the stable,” she whispered, enunciating each syllable. “He needs pigs.”
“I’ll see to your dog,” Krigel said. “Now go to sleep before I have Ellinell knock you over the head.”
The tree shook with laughter, swaying Miranda back and forth. She leaned into the motion, falling into a deep sleep before they’d reached the second landing.
Miranda woke suddenly to bright light in her face. She closed her eyes and rolled away, bumping her nose into the pile of pillows behind her. Raising her hand as a shield, she tried again, opening her eyes slowly as they adjusted.
She was lying on a narrow bed in the corner of a small, neat room. Her dirty boots were off, so was her jacket, leaving her in her shirtsleeves and pants on top of the embroidered bedspread. She also realized with a bit of a shock that her hair was wet. She moved her hand up timidly, running her fingers through damp curls that smelled faintly of the mountains.
“I took the liberty of asking my spring spirit to wash it,” said a deep voice. “I thought you’d sleep better if you were clean.”
She looked up with a start to see Spiritualist Krigel rising from a deep armchair beside the bed. He took a covered tray from the table beside him and plopped it unceremoniously onto Miranda’s lap.
“You’ll be relieved to know that your ghosthound has been taken care of. He ate three pigs and passed out in a fat stupor in the stable yard. Since you already had your pass out, I’m hoping you’ll take care of the eating part so we can move on to what exactly happened in Osera that sent you running back here with Banage’s ring.”
Miranda pushed herself up and uncovered the tray. A lovely smell wafted up, and she grinned in delight at the large bowl of egg soup and the round loaf of walnut bread.
“Thank you for looking after Gin,” she said, tucking the napkin under her chin. “And me, I should add. I’m sorry to impose—”
“I’ve been the assistant to the Rector Spiritualis for close to thirty years now,” Krigel said. “It is my job to mother you. Now”—he sat down in the deep chair again— “talk.”
Miranda took a mouthful of soup and a bite of bread. Once those were down, she told him. Krigel listened impassively as she described the mad ride down to Osera, how they’d broken the Empress’s siege and retaken the beach only to lose it again. He didn’t even flinch at her description of the war spirits, though his eyebrows did furrow when she reached Banage’s meeting with Eli and his argument with Sara.
That part still felt unreal. Even two days later, she wasn’t able to fully wrap her brain around the idea that Master Banage was Eli Monpress’s father, or Sara’s husband. But Krigel took all these things without comment and told her to get on with it.
She told him about the burning of Osera next, and Sara’s counterattack, but when she reached her and Mellinor’s attack on the Empress, and how it had ended, her throat closed up. Eventually, she choked out enough of the important details to get to the Empress herself.
That was also hard to tell, but in a different way. How did you explain a star to someone who’d never seen one? Eli’s roll took longer still, mostly because Miranda wasn’t sure what had happened, exactly. Even so, no matter how unbelievable Miranda knew her story must sound, Krigel’s expression didn’t change until she reached Sara’s apprehension of Banage on the beach this morning.
“I always told him Sara would never give up,” Krigel said, leaning back in his chair. “So he made you Rector and let them arrest him?”
Miranda nodded, staring down at the dregs of her soup.
“A good move,” Krigel said. “We knew his days as Rector were numbered the moment he told me he’d rejected Whitefall’s compromise. A Spiritualist must stand on ideals, but it is the Rector’s job to be a uniting force between us wizards and the rest of humanity, and you can’t do that when they’re calling you traitor.”
Miranda’s head snapped up. “So you think he should have just given in to Whitefall, then?”
“Of course not,” Krigel said. “But Banage knew as well as any of us that taking a stand meant ending his time as Rector. Still, it was his decision. I am sorry to lose him, but we in the Spirit Court don’t force men or spirits to act against their will.”
“Well,” Miranda said. “I don’t mean to let him rot in a Council jail, especially not with Sara as his jailor. We have to free him.”
“On what grounds?” Krigel said.
Miranda stared at him, disbelieving, but Krigel just laced his fingers together. “He’s made himself a traitor to the Council,” the old Assistant Rector said. “And he must answer for that. If we try to spare him his punishment, all we’ll do is widen the rift between the Court and Whitefall.”
“But we can’t just leave him there!” Miranda cried.
“We can and we must,” Krigel said, his voice infuriatingly calm. “He gave himself up as a traitor to save the Court. By turning himself in, he confines his crimes to one man rather than dooming our entire organization. In going with Sara willingly, he’s freed the Court to make peace with the Council and mend the schism.”
Miranda slumped against the pillows. She hadn’t thought of it that way. Honestly, the idea of Banage under Sara’s thumb without anyone to help him made her so angry she couldn’t see past it. But as Krigel spoke, she could hear Banage’s voice on the beach as he pressed the ring onto her finger, telling her to mend the Court. And, as much as she hated it, she knew what she had to do.
“We must call a Conclave,” she said. “We must bring all the Spiritualists together again and unite the Court. That’s what Banage told me to do.”
“Already done,” Krigel said, smiling at her surprised look. “I sent the messages while you were sleeping. The Conclave is set for the day after tomorrow.”
Miranda blinked. “So soon? Can we even gather the Court on such short notice?”
“Conclaves are always short notice, as I understand it,” Krigel said. “And Spiritualists move very quickly when they have to.”
Miranda bit her lip. It made her nervous to rush something so important. “But—”
“Calling the Conclave was the entire reason Banage gave you that ring,” Krigel said. “Only a Rector can call a Conclave, and if we’re to avoid charges of favoritism over his appointing you as interim Rector splitting the Court further, we must move as fast as possible. The Court exists to bring order to wizardry, and we can’t do that if we can’t bring order to ourselves.”
Miranda lay back, covering her tired eyes with her hands. “Very well, what do I have to do?”
“For the moment, nothing,” Krigel said. “Except try and stay out of trouble, if you’re even capable of such a feat.”
Miranda laughed at that, but then her face grew serious. “I wish I could stay here and not move for the next two days,” she said. “But the world is changing, Krigel. Greater forces than I knew existed before a few days ago are moving. Banage told me that the world needs the Court now more than ever, and I believe him. The Court must be united to do whatever must be done.”
“And we will be,” Krigel said, pushing himself up. “One way or another.” He reached to take her tray and paused. “You realize, of course, that many of the Tower Keepers were very unhappy with Banage at the end. When the Court comes together for the Conclave, the first thing the Tower Keepers will do is call for a vote for a new Rector.”
“That’s fine with me,” Miranda said. “I became a Spiritualist to help spirits, not play politics.”
“That may be for the best,” Krigel said solemnly as he gathered the tray. “The Rectorship is often the worst thing that can happen to a good Spiritualist. Just look at Banage.”
Miranda couldn’t argue there.
When Krigel had everything stacked, he turned toward the door. “There was a Spiritualist who wanted to see you earlier. I told her you were resting, but she was very insistent. Shall I show her in, or would you rather sleep?”
Miranda wrinkled her nose. “What did she want to talk about?”
“Something about the river,” Krigel said. “Should I tell her to wait?”
“No,” Miranda said, pushing herself up again. “Send her in.”
Krigel nodded and vanished into the hall. A few moments later, a woman Miranda had never seen poked her head in. “Rector? May I enter?”
“Of course,” Miranda said, fidgeting self-consciously. Answering to “Rector” would take some getting used to. Fortunately, the woman didn’t sit on ceremony. She let herself right in and shut the door behind her.
She was middle aged, plump in an active, good-living sort of way, but what really caught Miranda’s eye were the woman’s rings. She had several, an impressive collection for any Spiritualist, but where most of the Court had a variety of colored stones marking a wide array of servant spirits, this woman’s rings all seemed to be cut from the same watery blue stone.
“Sorry to bother you while you’re resting, Rector,” the woman said. “I wouldn’t have intruded, but Renellor was very insistent.”
“Renellor?” The name was familiar.
“The river running through Zarin,” the woman answered, staring at Miranda like she was stupid.
“Oh, the Whitefall,” Miranda said. She regretted it instantly.
“She has her own name, you know,” the Spiritualist said in a huff. “Honestly, Rector, it is a disgrace to hear a Spiritualist using the name imposed upon her by the Whitefall family’s hubris!”
“I’m sorry,” Miranda said. “I’m afraid I never had the pleasure of meeting Renellor. How can I help you, Spiritualist…”
“Brennagan,” the woman said. “Jenna Brennagan. I’m the head of the Court’s Committee on Water Relations.”
Which explained the blue rings, Miranda thought.
“But I didn’t actually come here to talk to the Rector,” Jenna said. “I came here to talk to Miranda Lyonette.” She paused. “You are Spiritualist Lyonette?”
“I am,” Miranda said.
“Oh good,” Jenna said with a sigh. “Everyone kept calling you Rector, so I wasn’t sure. Anyway, I was paying my daily visit to Rellenor this morning and found her all in a tizzy. Some foreign water spirit had invaded her river, you see. A sea spirit, if you can imagine. He was being frightfully rude, getting salt everywhere, but Rellenor said he kept asking for you by name.”
Miranda’s heart skipped a beat. “A sea spirit?”
“Yes,” Jenna answered. “I told him I’d pass on the message, but only if he promised to…Where are you going?”
Miranda was already up. She ran past the woman, sock feet sliding on the polished stone.
“Thank you, Spiritualist Brennagan!” she cried as she ran down the stairs. “I’ll take it from here!”
“Right,” Jenna said, staring bewildered as the Rector Spiritualis ran down the stairs yelling for her boots. “Thank you for your prompt action.”
Miranda was already too far away to hear.
Ten minutes later, Miranda was dressed and in a carriage clattering toward the river. She sat impatiently on the bench seat, drumming her fingers on the window as the hired driver worked his way through the crowded street. It would have been faster to wake Gin, but with all she’d put her ghosthound through already, Miranda hadn’t had the heart. Now, she wished she had.
It was early morning and Zarin was in full swing. Everywhere Miranda looked, people were out doing their morning shopping at the market stalls as though the war had never happened. Of course, for these people, it hadn’t. The Immortal Empress had come, triumphed, and fallen without causing Zarin so much as a hiccup. Mostly the crowds seemed happy to have their streets to themselves again now that the soldiers were in Osera. Normally, this would have made Miranda smile. Today, they were in her way.
Three crowded blocks from the docks, Miranda gave up on the carriage. She paid the driver for the full trip and set off on foot, taking the back way down the cargo ramps to the water. After some finagling and more than a few dirty looks from the barge men, she climbed down a steep-graded stone ramp toward the black water of the Whitefall River. Rellenor, she reminded herself.
The river that cut through the center of Zarin was swift and deep. Centuries of city planning had squeezed the once broad waterway into a narrow, stone-walled channel riddled with docks and shadowed by bridges. Boats of all sizes crowded the intakes, but one boat slip was empty, and Miranda scrambled down it to the water’s edge. The white stone of the ramp was slick with green slime where it met the river, but Miranda fell to her knees in it without thinking, plunging her hands into the cold water up to the elbow.
“Mellinor?” she whispered, her voice hesitant.
Nothing happened. As the seconds ticked by, dread filled Miranda’s stomach. Had she missed him? Had she taken too long? Maybe the invading sea spirit wasn’t her Mellinor at all. Maybe she’d let wild hope cloud her judgment. Maybe she’d rushed all the way down here for nothing.
She’d nearly worked herself into a full-blown panic when the water answered. “You must be the Spiritualist.”
It wasn’t Mellinor’s deep voice but higher pitched and faster, the words clipping into each other.
“I am Miranda Lyonette,” Miranda answered, getting a firm grip on her emotions. “You must be Rellenor.”
“About time you got here,” the river replied in a snippy voice. “I was about to kick him out, Great Spirit or no. The nerve, bringing salt water into my current.”
“Thank you for your patience,” Miranda said. “Can I speak with him?”
The river burbled noncommittaly, and then the black water around Miranda’s hands grew clear, the river muck separating out to reveal a current of blue, beloved water.
“Miranda,” the water whispered in a deep, relieved voice. “I found you.”
“Mellinor…” It took every bit of self-control Miranda had not to burst into tears right there. Instead, she leaned down, lowering her face until her nose was brushing the clear, salty water. “I thought…” She couldn’t even say it. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I let you down. I left—”
“Don’t start,” Mellinor said. “We went in together knowing the risks. I can’t have you taking all the blame for something we both decided.”
“But how did you survive?” Miranda said, running her hands through his cold water. “And why are you here, in a river?”
“The answer to both those questions is the same,” Mellinor said. “After the Empress knocked you out of the water, the sea currents tore me apart. I lost nearly all my water, but I managed to preserve my core. I don’t know how, exactly. My best guess is that four hundred years in a pillar followed by my time with you gave me a greater sense of self than most water spirits. But even though I was able to hold the last bit of my soul together, I was trapped by the currents and eventually sank.”
“You sank?” Miranda couldn’t imagine it.
“Like a stone,” Mellinor answered. “I didn’t have the strength to go against the crashing waters and I was too heavy to flow above them, so I fell down into the black abyss.” Mellinor’s water trembled against her fingers. “I’ve never been anywhere so dark, so cold. I didn’t even have the strength to flow. All I could do was keep falling. I’ve never felt so helpless, even in the pillar.”
“I’m sorry,” Miranda whispered again. “I’m so, so, so—”
“Enough,” Mellinor rumbled. “Didn’t I say it’s not your fault?”
Miranda clenched her fingers. “But you suffered.”
“I did,” Mellinor said. “But I’m only telling you about it so you can understand why I did what I did next. Listen, and stop interrupting. I don’t have much time.”
Miranda nodded and motioned for the water to continue.
“I sank for a long time,” he said. “Until, finally, I hit something. At first, I thought it was the bottom of the sea, but then I realized it was moving.”
“Moving?” Miranda said, forgetting her promise not to interrupt. “Was it a leviathan?”
“Far bigger,” Mellinor said. “I’d landed on the Deep Current, the backbone of sea.”
“But I thought the sea was a mad mass of water?” Miranda said. “Too large and chaotic even for Great Spirits. That’s what you said.”
“It is,” Mellinor said. “But it wasn’t always that way.” The water paused. Had Mellinor been human, Miranda could almost picture him looking side to side before leaning in to whisper, “You remember what the Shaper Mountain showed us? About the time before?”
“Back then, the sea was different,” Mellinor said. “It used to be that the ocean was home to the greatest spirits, the enormous forces who kept the sea moving. Now, only one remains, the Deep Current that runs from the northern ice down to the warm southern seas. It’s the largest water spirit in the world, the only one big enough that the now-mad ocean can’t rip apart. Its flow is what drives the other currents and prevents stagnation.”
“And you landed on it?” Miranda said. “What happened then?”
“What else?” Mellinor said. “I was sucked into its flow. Even I can’t fight a spirit that large.”
Miranda trembled at the thought. “How were you not destroyed, then?”
“Because the Deep Current doesn’t absorb lesser spirits,” Mellinor said. “It must remain pure and whole because it is one of the most ancient spirits, and, in turn, one of the stars.”
“Mellinor!” the river’s voice cut in, horrified. “You dare speak the Lady’s business to a—”
“She already knows,” Mellinor snapped back. “Quiet.”
To Miranda’s great surprise, the river fell silent.
“I thought that was the end, then,” Mellinor continued. “The Deep Current runs along the base of the world. Once you’re caught, there’s no escape. You don’t get absorbed, but you can’t escape either. You can’t do anything except roll along forever until you finally give up and let your water go. But before I could resign myself to my fate, the current vanished.”
Miranda blinked in surprise. “Vanished? But you said—”
“I know,” Mellinor said. “Old, ancient, enormous, how could it vanish? It was a star. But it did. One moment I was flowing through the dark with the Deep Current; the next it was gone. Just disappeared, like it was yanked out of the ocean.”
“I don’t understand,” Miranda said. “What did you do?”
“The only thing I could do,” Mellinor said. “The bottom of the sea was still for the first time ever. I was surrounded by abandoned water without a will or mind of its own. It had to go somewhere, so I took it over.”
“You took it over?” Miranda repeated dumbly.
“Yes,” Mellinor said. “Without the Deep Current to push it, the sea’s cycle was slowing. It would eventually stop all together. The moment the current vanished, the lesser water spirits began to panic. I had to do something. I did spend several thousand years as a Great Spirit, you know. That kind of obligation doesn’t just go away.”
“You took over the water left by a star?”
“Yes,” Mellinor said again. “That’s what I came to tell you. Until a bigger spirit comes to take the job, I’m the Deep Current, and we have a serious problem.”
“You can’t be the Deep Current?” Miranda said, her head spinning.
“No,” Mellinor snapped. “That part’s fine. I’m talking about the fact that a star vanished. The Deep Current, the king of the sea, one of the largest, oldest, steadiest spirits in the world. A water spirit so large that it drove the ocean disappeared, Miranda. It was only by chance that I was there and had retained enough of myself to take over the gap it left before the ocean went stagnant.”
Miranda took a deep breath. “All right,” she said. “How long can you do the Deep Current’s job?”
“Long as I can bear the dark, I suppose,” Mellinor said. “I’m an inland sea, I’m used to warm water and sunlight. But I can stand it for a while, especially since the currents are treating me like they used to treat the old Deep Current.”
“They’re treating you like a star, then?” Miranda said.
“More or less.” She could almost hear Mellinor’s smile. “How else do you think I was able to get a river to take my water into Zarin to find you?”
“Certainly not my first choice,” Rellenor said with a splash that drenched Miranda to the chest. “I don’t care if you took over the Deep Current’s position; how can you calmly break the Lady’s law to this human? It’s blasphemy, and if you think I’m going to keep quiet about this, then—”
“I don’t think a river could be quiet if its waters depended on it,” Mellinor snapped. “You can go crying to the Shepherdess if you want, but before you do, you should know that Miranda here is a friend of the favorite.”
The river suddenly went very still. “Friend of the favorite?” It sloshed quietly. All at once, the water began to gently lap at Miranda’s boots. “Why didn’t you say so, my lady?”
Miranda almost declared that she had never been friends with that irresponsible thief, but she caught herself at the last second when Mellinor’s cold water pressed against her hand.
“I’ll hold out down here as long as I can,” the sea spirit said. “Meanwhile, you have to help me discover what happened. Stars don’t just vanish. Something bad is brewing, Miranda, and I fear it’ll only get worse.”
“Of course I’ll help,” Miranda said. “I couldn’t call myself a Spiritualist if I didn’t. Even if I wasn’t one, I made you a promise, Mellinor—strength for obedience, power for service. My soul is still your shore, and whatever is happening, I’ll protect you however I can.”
“I know you will,” Mellinor said, his voice fading. “I have to go. I’ve held against the tides too long. I’m counting on you, Miranda.”
“I won’t let you down,” Miranda said as the blue water ran away from her fingers. “Not this time.”
This last part was a whisper, and the words were lost in the sound of the river as Mellinor’s water vanished downstream. The moment he was gone, the emptiness came roaring back almost as strong as when she’d first lost him, and Miranda nearly fell into the water. The river caught her, pushing back against her hands until she was steady again.
“I’m sorry about before,” Rellenor said. “I didn’t know you were a friend of the favorite. I’m sure the Deep Current simply had business with the Lady. Don’t worry, the ocean’s star will return and your sea will come home. Just keep flowing and everything works out, you’ll see.”
Miranda nodded and straightened up, but she couldn’t help remembering Mellinor’s insult to the river Fellboro so long ago. Rivers, always taking the easiest route. That snatch of memory almost made her cry again, but she steeled herself, wringing the water out of her soaked sleeves and trousers as she set off up the boat ramp to catch a coach back to the Tower.
Even if the reason turned out to be innocent, a missing star was worrisome news indeed. It was good she’d already called the Conclave. She had a feeling she would need the whole Court before this was over.
All these thoughts tumbled through her head as she climbed the steep streets away from the river, and Miranda gave herself over to them completely—planning her actions, making lists, putting things in order—but once she’d found a cab willing to overlook her soaked clothes in exchange for a handsome tip, she collapsed onto the cushions and allowed herself to focus on the one thought she’d been holding back until she was alone.
Mellinor was alive. He was alive and he’d found her. Shrinking back into the corner of the coach, Miranda finally let herself break down as all the guilt and fear and sadness of the past two days washed through her. The roar of the city covered her crying as the coach wound its way slowly through the packed streets toward the Spiritualist Tower.
Eli woke to the feel of burning fingers stroking his cheek. He was lying on his side, curled under his coat against the cold of the Between. He could feel Benehime beside him, her white body shining through his closed lids like a beacon. He took a deep slow breath and opened his eyes, plastering his face with the warm, sincere smile that worked best with her. The first thing he saw was Benehime sitting on the bed beside him, watching him with the all-consuming love that made his stomach clench into a tiny, icy marble.
Sleep well? she whispered, leaning down to kiss his forehead.
“Well enough,” Eli said, clenching his jaw so he wouldn’t flinch.
I’ve brought your breakfast. She leaned back so Eli could see the breakfast tray on the floor, the enormous platters of sweet meats, pastries, and breads all steaming hot.
Eli sat up without comment, sliding his jacket back over his shoulders. As usual, his clothes were clean. He never knew quite how that happened, if Benehime changed them in the night or if she simply ordered the dirt to leave. As he pulled his coat square, he sincerely hoped it was the latter. The idea of Benehime dressing him while he slept made his skin crawl.
When he was fully dressed again, the Shepherdess reached down and picked up the tray. The silver platter practically leaped into her hands, but Benehime didn’t pay attention to its fawning. Instead, she selected a frosted bun and held it out to Eli.
Eat, she commanded. I won’t have you so thin.
Eli obeyed. The food came from Zarin, snatched through the veil on its tray with the crest of an extremely prestigious inn stamped into the metal. She always got him the best. Too bad the frosted cake tasted like ash in his mouth under the Shepherdess’s scrutiny. He ate mechanically, shoving the food down and doing his best to look grateful, but as he woke up fully, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong…
That thought almost made him choke on a piece of ham. Who was he trying to fool? Everything was wrong. He was right back where he’d started, back in the prison he’d worked all his life to avoid. And this time there was no con, no game, no hope of escape. This time, he was here forever.
Eli shook himself and forced his attention back to the food that was going down his throat before he could get really depressed. It did no good to fret. He was the only one who would suffer if he let himself get bent out of shape over this. Best to make the most of it, he thought, taking a muffin from Benehime’s hand. Be a good dog, stay out of trouble, and maybe if he was boring enough Benehime would forget her obsession in time. He glanced sideways at the Lady, who flashed him an adoring smile. Sure, and maybe he’d be the Heart of War’s next wielder.
He chewed violently and swallowed, but the food sat like lead in his stomach. Eli closed his eyes. Powers, he wished that feeling of wrongness would go away. If he had to eat, he’d rather not be sick from it.
When he’d cleared the tray enough to satisfy her, Benehime took his hands and stood them up. The bed vanished the moment they were on their feet, leaving them standing alone in the white nothing. He was about to ask what she wanted to do when he caught the Lady staring at him, her lips curved in a loving smile.
I’m so glad you’re home, she said, drawing him close. You have no idea how dull life has been without you, pet.
Eli winced at the endearment, but his face was hidden against her white hair, and she didn’t see.
It’s just like old times, she murmured, stroking her hands over his back, her fingertips gliding up and down his spine. Just the two of us.
And that was when Eli realized what was wrong.
He pushed her away and reached down, pulling his jacket apart. He unbuttoned his shirt, calling out in his mind for Karon. Nothing answered. He cursed and popped the middle button, staring down in horror at his smooth chest, the pale skin whole and unmarred, as though it had never been burned.
For a long moment, he could only stand there and force the breath in and out of his lungs. Anger like he had never felt before rose in his throat, threatening to overwhelm his well-honed instinct for self-preservation. Across from him, the Shepherdess stood playing with her hair, smiling innocently as she watched him fight for control.
“What did you do to him?” Eli said at last, grinding each word through his clenched teeth.
I removed him, Benehime said, her voice light and casual. They could have been talking about the weather for all the care she showed.
Eli closed his eyes. “Why?” he whispered. “Did I not come when called? Have I not been a good favorite?”
You are perfect, Benehime said, reaching out to stroke his cheek. And that’s why he had to go. Her fingers traced down his jaw to his neck, following the line of throat to his chest. I can’t have such an ugly burn marring my beautiful favorite, can I?
“He was my friend!” Eli roared, catching her hand and forcing it away. “Where is he? Tell me, Benehime!”
Benehime’s smile vanished. Don’t be bossy with me, darling, she said, grabbing his hand and bending it backward before he could react. Eli gasped in pain, cursing himself. He always forgot how strong she was.
You made the rules of the game, she said, bending his hand farther and farther. But I won. The time for defiance is over. You’re mine, every last bit of you, forever. I decide who your friends are, what you can do and when, what you eat, when you sleep.
She stopped bending his hand just before his wrist snapped. Eli clamped his jaw, fighting not to cry out as she loomed over him. Forget the lava spirit, she whispered. My happiness is your only concern now.
Panting from the pain, Eli glared up at her. Every instinct he had was screaming at him to keep his mouth shut. To let it go. But he couldn’t. Not this time. Not Karon.
He leaned forward, bringing his face up to hers. “What. Did. You. Do?”
Benehime sneered down at him, and her grip on his wrist vanished. Without the support, Eli stumbled, falling at her feet. The moment he was down, she grabbed his head, forcing him to look at her.
I’ve sent him away, she said, her fingers digging into his jaw like claws. He was a bad influence, keeping you up all night with talk of disobedience. She laughed at his startled look. What? Did you really think I’d put you somewhere I couldn’t hear you? Don’t be stupid, love. I heard it all. But you needn’t worry, darling, I’m not mad at you. How could I be? You’re my everything. But I couldn’t let such talk just slide, could I? She sighed deeply. Someone had to pay, love. Someone always pays, and I could never let it be you. And anyway, I couldn’t stand seeing his filth clouding your beauty any longer.
Benehime smiled down at him and dropped her head, brushing her burning lips against his. I tore him out and tossed him down with the rest of the spirits, she murmured, nuzzling her lips back and forth over his. Now you’re beautiful again. As beautiful as the first time I saw you.
Eli wrenched his face away from hers. “You sent him out on his own?”
The Lady’s look grew cold. It’s no longer your concern where—
“Are you crazy?” Eli shouted. “He’s a lava spirit. They need constant energy. He’ll die without me. Why do you think I offered to let him live in my chest in the first—”
Benehime’s hand struck his cheek before he could finish, slamming him to the white ground at her feet.
No more of that, she hissed. I’m what matters to you, not him.
Eli reached up to rub his throbbing jaw, but his fingers had barely made it before white hands grabbed arms. The Lady lifted him like he weighed nothing, setting him back on his knees as her hands moved up to cup his face again. There, there, love, she said, stroking him, her white eyes soft again. Let’s not fight. The lava spirit’s gone, a payment for your disobedience. It’s finished, everything swept clean, so say you love me and I’ll take you somewhere nice, all right?
Eli said nothing. He just knelt there, staring at her, his body trembling like a plucked wire. He knew what he should do, of course. He should kiss her, lie to her, tell her she was his everything and then go look for Karon later once things cooled down. That would be smart; that would be best. He knew how to placate her better than anyone, after all. It was a life skill he’d honed to perfection. All he had to do was bow his head, but his neck would not budge.
Eliton? the Lady said, her voice heavy with warning.
Shaking with rage, he said the only word he had left.
The Shepherdess’s eyes widened, but Eli didn’t care. He was so sick of this. Sick of being afraid, sick of lying, sick of her. Before he could think, he was standing up, pushing her hands away.
“How can I love you?” he cried, backing away. “You’re cruel and petty and vicious. The only reason I came back is because you threatened to destroy everything I actually loved.” He pressed his hands against his empty chest. “If you’re going to punish someone for what I said, then punish me, because those words were probably the only true things to come out of my mouth since you brought me here.”
He bared his teeth at her, letting all the fury that had been building since Osera come roaring out. “I hate you,” he said. “I would have hated you from the first moment I saw you if I hadn’t been so young and stupid. You’re not my Lady, and you never will be. I wish I’d never met you.”
His words echoed in the empty white, and for once, it was Benehime who was shocked into silence. She stood perfectly still, her eyes stretched wide, her mouth pressed into a thin, white line. It was several seconds before she could move, but when she did, she moved faster than anything Eli had ever seen. In less than a second she was on him, her weight knocking him flat. The air thickened to cement around his arms and legs, pinning them down as she straddled his chest and grabbed his neck, her shaking thumbs pressing into his windpipe like twin icepicks.
At that moment, Eli was sure Benehime was going to kill him. Just rip his head right off, or cut off his air and watch him suffocate, but she didn’t. Gradually, her shaking subsided. The rage faded from her face, leaving it tired and drawn as she glared down at him.
I don’t think you understand how this works, love, she whispered, her voice terrifyingly calm. You blame me for everything, but you made the bet, remember? Do you know how much it hurt when you tried to trick me into letting you go?
The fingers on his throat relaxed, sliding up his neck to tangle in the hair behind his ears.
I died a little that day, she whispered. But I took your bet, just like you wanted. I played along, just like you wanted me to, but did you think I wouldn’t be playing for keeps? That I wouldn’t do whatever was necessary to get you home? She leaned down, pressing her cheek against his. Do you think my love is that shallow?
Eli moved his face as far from hers as he could. “I don’t think you know what love is.”
Benehime slammed his head into the floor so hard he saw spots. I know more of love than you could ever comprehend! she screamed. I am the Shepherdess! I am the most beloved thing in the entire world! Everything loves me, must love me, and you will, too.
“Why should I?” Eli snapped. It was suicidally stupid to keep antagonizing her, but he couldn’t stop. He was so fed up with every part of this ridiculous affair, the senseless loss of Karon, the loss of all his friends, his life, everything she’d taken from him. He was going to speak his mind now even if she killed him for it. At least then he would be free.
“Why should I love you?” he said again. “What have you ever done to deserve it?’
Everything! Benehime’s voice roared in his ears. I gave you everything you have! Had I not taken notice of you, you would have died that night in the woods. It is my favor alone that makes you worthwhile. You are nothing without me!
“You’re wrong!” Eli shouted back. “I learned to be a thief on my own. I met Josef and won his friendship on my own. Same with Nico. My bounty is my own! I’m Eli Monpress, the greatest thief in the world, and I did it with their help, not yours!”
Benehime stared at him, mouth agape, and then she began to laugh. You really believe that? she said, incredulous. Do you honestly think any of those spirits would have listened to you had it not been for my mark? Are you actually egotistical enough to believe you were just so charming that the world fell over for you? She laughed harder, falling across him. How preposterous! Even when you were trying to do things on your own, I was always there. It was never you, love. It was me. It was always me.
She shook her head and tilted it sideways, her voice growing sweet and patient, like a teacher explaining numbers to a silly child. I protected your pet demonseed from the League, she said. I saved you in Mellinor. I let you make a portal to save your swordsman when you’d sworn never to use them again. I even stopped the Lord of Storms’ blade right in front of your face.
Eli flinched. “I didn’t ask you to do any of that.”
But you knew I would, Benehime scoffed. You counted on it. You took those big risks because you knew I would be there to bail you out, just like I always do. I could have called you in at any of those times, but I didn’t. The truth, darling, is that I’ve bent over backward time after time to help you. I’ve healed you, comforted you. I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me, and all I asked in return was your love. And yet you still have the gall, the arrogance to say you did it all on your own? The Shepherdess lifted her lip in a sneer. Get over yourself, Eliton. Everything you are is because of me.
Eli sat up as far as he could with the heavy air pinning him down. “Everything I am is in spite of you,” he said, spitting the words at her. “I never asked to be your favorite. You’ve played me and dangled me like a puppet ever since I met you, and you abused your power over the spirits to do it. I don’t love you, nothing does. The only reason the world obeys anything you say is because the spirits are afraid of you, just like I was, but not anymore.” He lay back, his face breaking into a wide smile. “I’m done being afraid of you, Benehime, and I’m done being your favorite.”
As he finished, Benehime began to tremble on top of him. When she spoke, her voice was an icy knife. You don’t get to make that decision.
“Yes, I do,” Eli said. “Because, while you can force everything else in this world to dance for your delight, you can’t make me do the one thing you need above all else. You can’t make me love you.”
Benehime dug her nails into his head. You will love me, she snarled.
“If you wanted love, you shouldn’t have killed Nara,” Eli snarled back. “Because you’ll get none from me.”
The rage on Benehime’s face was a horror to behold, twisting her lovely features into a hideous mask. But then, as fast as it came, the rage was gone, replaced by something worse.
Slowly, terribly, a smile began to spread across Benehime’s lips. She sat up, staring down at Eli from her perch on his chest. And then, in a beautiful, fluid motion, she rolled off him. Eli didn’t move as she stood, not even to test the bindings on his limbs. He just lay there, meeting her white eyes with his own unwavering glare. Show no weakness, a voice very much like Josef’s whispered in his mind. Hold your ground.
Benehime straightened to her full height. She loomed over him, white and terrible with that cold smile on her lips, and the air grew thick with the pressure of her will. It surrounded Eli like tar, pressing in until he could scarcely breathe.
You think you are anything without my love, arrogant boy? she whispered. You’re nothing without me. The only worth you have is what I give you.
Eli rolled his eyes. He’d heard that one before. “You’re wrong,” he said, grinning wide. “I’m worth two hundred and forty-eight thousand gold standards. Now that Den’s dead and Josef’s king, that’s more than anyone else in the world.”
Benehime closed her eyes. I should have known better than to expect sense from you, but to choose a bounty over my favor… Her voice trailed off, and then, without warning, her face softened.
I love you, Eliton, the Lady whispered, opening her eyes. Despite all you’ve said, all the insults, all the selfishness, I love you. Nothing can change that. But since you would choose a bounty over my favor, even in jest, it’s obvious you need to be reminded of the value of my love. All these years living in the light of my good graces have made you forget how easy you have it. I think it’s time for you to relearn the harsh realities of the world.
Before Eli could answer that, Benehime reached down out and touched his chest. Her fingers burned through the cloth of his shirt, and Eli didn’t even have time to brace before the pain exploded through him. It flooded his mind, burned over every inch of his skin, ground into his bone, but then, as quickly as it had started, the pain was gone.
Benehime’s hand left his chest, leaving only the feeling of emptiness and the knowledge of what he’d lost. The mark of the Shepherdess, the sign of Benehime’s favor that had been inside him so long he couldn’t remember life without it, was gone. Suddenly, Eli felt painfully weak and small, like he’d deflated. It must have shown, for Benehime began to laugh as she straightened again.
Let’s see how you live up to your words, she said haughtily. But don’t worry, darling, I haven’t taken everything from you. After all, you still have your bounty.
Eli opened his mouth to say she was bloody right about that, but before he could make a sound, he realized he was falling. Above him, Benehime’s face shone down like the moon, her lips curved into a cruel smile.
I hope it’s everything you dreamed of.
Her voice rang in his ears as the white world vanished, slipping away through the cut in reality she’d opened under his back. Suddenly, he was surrounded in a whirl of color—blue sky and green trees and tall white spires topped with gold. That was all he caught before he crashed into something cold, hard, and uneven. Eli rolled on instinct, clutching his chest as the breath was knocked clean out of him. When his lungs were working again, he opened his eyes to see the the tip of a sword hovering right in front of his nose.
Eli raised his hands on instinct. He was on his back in some kind of paved yard surrounded by soldiers in white surcoats, all of whom had their swords out. Overhead, a great citadel rose like a mountain, its seven, gold-tipped spires scraping the pale morning sky.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Eli muttered, lowering his hands to rub his aching eyes.
“Arms up!” the soldier barked.
Eli raised his hands again, smiling at the guards. It wasn’t his best smile, but it was all he could manage. Of course, of all the places Benehime could drop him, where else would she choose but the front gate of the Council of Thrones?
“That’s him, all right,” one of the guards said, nodding toward the wall of the guardhouse where Eli’s poster was pasted prominently. “Looks just like his picture.”
If the fact that the most wanted criminal in the Council had literally fallen from the sky bothered them, the guards hid it well. They hauled Eli to his feet without fanfare and marched him into the citadel through a side gate. Once inside, they said something to another guard who was wearing a long white coat, and then took Eli down a long set of narrow stairs as though following long-standing orders.
Despite all the jostling, Eli saw little of the journey. His mind was still reeling from how quickly his situation had changed. It was a strange realization to have while he was surrounded by guards marching down a seemingly never-ending stair into the dark underbelly of the Council of Thrones, but it was slowly dawning on Eli that he was free. The mark was gone. He’d done it. He didn’t know how long it would last, but for now, in this moment, he was free.
His face broke into an idiotic grin, and Eli practically floated as the guards pushed him along a suspended walkway through a huge, dark, cavernous room. He was so lost in his happiness, he didn’t even notice where he was going until the guards sat him down in a worn but surprisingly comfortable chair. And then, to his great astonishment, they left.
Shocked out of his happy daze by his sudden abandonment, Eli looked around, casing his surroundings with the attention to detail Giuseppe Monpress had drilled into him. He was alone in a small, windowless office with strange, curving metal walls held together by rivets. Desks covered in papers took up most of the space. The walls were covered in papers as well, drawings mostly, but one wall, the wall he was facing, was different.
There, pasted in neat rows from the ceiling to just above the desks, hung every bounty poster he’d ever had, starting when he was only worth five hundred and going all the way to the his current sum of two hundred and forty-eight thousand. The sight of his own smiling face repeated over and over was so puzzling and unexpected that Eli didn’t realize there was someone else in the room with him until she spoke. But even though he hadn’t seen her, the scratchy, smoke-stained voice told Eli exactly who it was.
“Hello, Eliton.” Sara stepped out from behind him, her pipe dangling between her teeth. “Been a while.”
Eli took a deep breath. “Not long enough.”
His mother smiled, and Eli felt the joy of his freedom shrivel away to nothing.
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