Everything had gone horribly wrong. None of Safiya fon Hasstrel’s hastily laid plans for this holdup were unfolding as they ought. First, the black carriage with the gleaming gold standard was not the target Safi and Iseult had been waiting for. Worse, this cursed carriage was accompanied by eight rows of city guards blinking midday sun from their eyes. Second, there was absolutely nowhere for Safi and Iseult to go. Up on their limestone outcropping, the dusty road below was the only path to Veñaza City. And just as this thrust of gray rock overlooked the road, the road overlooked nothing but turquoise sea forever. It was seventy feet of cliff pounded by rough waves and even rougher winds. And third—the real kick in the kidneys—was that as soon as the guards marched over the girls’ buried trap and the firepots within exploded … Well, then those guards would be scouring every inch of the cliffside. “Hell-gates, Iz.” Safi snapped down her spyglass. “There are four guards in each row. Eight times four makes…” Her face scrunched up. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen … “It’s thirty-two,” Iseult said blandly. “Thirty-two thrice-damned guards with thirty-two thrice-damned crossbows.
” Iseult only nodded and eased back the hood of her brown cape. The sun lit up her face. She was the perfect contrast to Safi: midnight hair to Safi’s wheat, moon skin to Safi’s tan, and hazel eyes to Safi’s blue. Hazel eyes that were now sliding to Safi as Iseult plucked away the spyglass. “I hate to say ‘I told you so’—” “Then don’t.” “—but,” Iseult finished, “Everything he said to you last night was a lie. He was most certainly not interested in a simple card game.” Iseult ticked off two gloved fingers. “He was not leaving town this morning by the northern highway. And I bet”—a third finger unfurled—“his name wasn’t even Caden.
” Caden. If … no, when Safi found that Chiseled Cheater, she was going to break every bone in his perfect rutting face. Safi groaned and banged her head against the rock. She’d lost all of her money to him. Not just some, but all. Last night had hardly been the first time Safi had bet all of her—and Iseult’s—savings on a card game. It wasn’t as if she ever lost, for, as the saying went, You can’t trick a Truthwitch. Plus, the winnings off one round alone from the highest-stake taro game in Veñaza City would have bought Safi and Iseult a place of their own. No more living in an attic for Iseult, no more stuffy Guildmaster’s guest room for Safi. But as Lady Fate would have it, Iseult hadn’t been able to join Safi at the game—her heritage had banned her from the highbrow inn where the game had taken place.
And without her Threadsister beside her, Safi was prone to … mistakes. Particularly mistakes of the strong-jawed, snide-tongued variety who plied Safi with compliments that somehow slipped right past her Truthwitchery. In fact, she hadn’t sensed a lying bone in Chiseled Cheater’s body when she’d collected her winnings from the in-house bank … Or when Chiseled Cheater had hooked his arm in hers and guided her into the warm night … Or when he’d leaned in for a chaste yet wildly heady kiss on the cheek. I will never gamble again, she swore, her heel drumming on the limestone. And I will never flirt again. “If we’re going to run for it,” Iseult said, interrupting Safi’s thoughts, “then we need to do so before the guards reach our trap.” “You don’t say.” Safi glared at her Threadsister, who watched the incoming guards through the spyglass. Wind kicked at Iseult’s dark hair, lifting the wispy bits that had fallen from her braid. A distant gull cried its obnoxious scree, scr-scree, scr-scree! Safi hated gulls; they always shit on her head.
“More guards,” Iseult murmured, the waves almost drowning out her words. But then louder, she said, “Twenty more guards coming from the north.” For half a moment, Safi’s breath choked off. Now, even if she and Iseult could somehow face the thirty-two guards accompanying the carriage, the other twenty guards would be upon them before they could escape. Safi’s lungs burst back to life with a vengeance. Every curse she’d ever learned rolled off her tongue. “We’re down to two options,” Iseult cut in, scooting back to Safi’s side. “We either turn ourselves in—” “Over my grandmother’s rotting corpse,” Safi spat. “—or we try to reach the guards before they trigger the trap. Then all we have to do is brazen our way through.
” Safi glanced at Iseult. As always, her Threadsister’s face was impassive. Blank. The only part of her that showed stress was her long nose—it twitched every few seconds. “Once we’re through,” Iseult added, drawing her hood back into place and casting her face in darkness, “we’ll follow the usual plan. Now hurry.” Safi didn’t need to be told to hurry—obviously she would hurry—but she bit back her retort. Iseult was, yet again, saving their hides. Besides, if Safi had to hear one more I told you so, she’d throttle her Threadsister and leave her carcass to the hermit crabs. Iseult’s feet hit the gritty road, and as Safi descended nimbly beside her, dust plumed around her boots—and inspiration struck.
“Wait, Iz.” In a flurry of movement, Safi swung off her cape. Then with a quick slash-rip-slash of her parrying knife, she cut off the hood. “Skirt and kerchief. We’ll be less threatening as peasants.” Iseult’s eyes narrowed. Then she dropped to the road. “But then our faces will be more obvious. Rub on as much dirt as you can.” As Iseult scrubbed her face, turning it a muddy brown, Safi wound the hood over her hair and wrapped the cape around her waist.
Once she’d tucked the brown cloak into her belt, careful to hide her scabbards beneath, she too slathered dirt and mud over her cheeks. In less than a minute, both girls were ready. Safi ran a quick, scrutinizing eye over Iseult … but the disguise was good. Good enough. Her Threadsister looked like a peasant in desperate need of a bath. With Iseult just behind, Safi launched into a quick clip around the limestone corner, her breath held tight … Then she exhaled sharply, her pace never slowing. The guards were still thirty paces from the buried firepots. Safi flashed a bumbling wave at a mustached guard in the front. He lifted his hand, and the other guards came to an abrupt stop. Then, one by one, each guard’s crossbow leveled on the girls.
Safi pretended not to notice, and when she reached the pile of gray pebbles that marked the trap, she cleared it with the slightest hop. Behind her, Iseult made the same, almost imperceptible leap. Then the mustached man—clearly the leader—raised his own crossbow. “Halt.” Safi complied, letting her feet drag to a stop—while also covering as much ground as she could. “Onga?” she asked, the Arithuanian word for yes. After all, if they were going to be peasants, they might as well be immigrant peasants. “Do you speak Dalmotti?” the leader asked, looking first at Safi. Then at Iseult. Iseult came to a clumsy stop beside Safiya.
“We spwik. A litttttle.” It was easily the worst attempt at an Arithuanian accent that Safiya had ever heard from Iseult’s mouth. “We are … in trouble?” Safi lifted her hands in a universally submissive gesture. “We only go to Veñaza City.” Iseult gave a dramatic cough, and Safi wanted to throttle her. No wonder Iz was always the cutpurse and Safi the distraction. Her Threadsister was awful at acting. “We want a city healer,” Safi rushed to say before Iseult could muster another unbelievable cough. “In case she has the plague.
Our mother died from it, you see, and ohhhh, how she coughed in those final days. There was so much blood—” “Plague?” the guard interrupted. “Oh, yes.” Safi nodded knowingly. “My sister is very ill.” Iseult heaved another cough—but this one was so convincing, Safi actually flinched … and then hobbled to her. “Oh, you need a healer. Come, come. Let your sister help you.” The guard turned back to his men, already dismissing the girls, already bellowing orders: “Back in formation! Resume march!” Gravel crunched; footsteps drummed.
The girls trudged onward, passing guards with wrinkled noses. No one wanted Iseult’s “plague” it would seem. Safi was just towing Iseult past the black carriage when its door popped wide. A saggy old man leaned his scarlet-clad torso outside. His wrinkles shook in the wind. It was the leader of the Gold Guild, a man named Yotiluzzi, whom Safi had seen from afar—at last night’s establishment, no less. The old Guildmaster clearly didn’t recognize Safi, though, and after a cursory glance, he lifted his reedy voice. “Aeduan! Get this foreign filth away from me!” A figure in white stalked around the carriage’s back wheel. His cape billowed, and though a hood shaded his face, there was no hiding the knife baldric across his chest or the sword at his waist. He was a Carawen monk—a mercenary trained to kill since childhood.
Safi froze, and without thinking, she eased her arm away from Iseult, who twisted silently behind her. The guards would reach the girls’ trap at any moment, and this was their ready position: Initiate. Complete. “Arithuanians,” the monk said. His voice was rough, but not with age—with underuse. “From what village?” He strolled a single step toward Safi. She had to fight the urge not to cower back. Her Truthwitchery was suddenly bursting with discomfort—a grating sensation, as if skin were being scratched off the back of her neck. And it wasn’t his words that set Safi’s magic to flaring. It was his presence.
This monk was young, yet there was something of about him. Something too ruthless—too dangerous—to ever be trusted. He pulled back his hood, revealing a pale face and close-cropped brown hair. Then, as the monk sniffed the air near Safi’s head, red swirled around his pupils. Safi’s stomach turned to stone. Bloodwitch. This monk was a rutting Bloodwitch. A creature from the myths, a being who could smell a person’s blood—smell their very witchery—and track it across entire continents. If he latched onto Safi’s or Iseult’s scent, then they were in deep, deep— Pop-pop-pop! Gunpowder burst inside firepots. The guards had hit the trap.
Safi acted instantly—as did the monk. His sword swished from its scabbard; her knife came up. She clipped the edge of his blade, parrying it aside. He recovered and lunged. Safi lurched back. Her calves hit Iseult, yet in a single fluid movement, Iseult kneeled—and Safi rolled sideways over her back. Initiate. Complete. It was how the girls fought. How they lived.
Safi unfurled from her flip and withdrew her sword just as Iseult’s moon scythes clinked free. Far behind them, more explosions thundered out. Shouts rose up, the horses kicked and whinnied. Iseult spun for the monk’s chest. He jumped backward and skipped onto the carriage wheel. Yet where Safi had expected a moment of distraction, she only got the monk diving at her from above. He was good. The best fighter she’d ever faced. But Safi and Iseult were better. Safi swooped out of reach just as Iseult wheeled into the monk’s path.
In a blur of spinning steel, her scythes sliced into his arms, his chest, his gut—and then, like a tornado, she was past. And Safi was waiting. Watching for what couldn’t be real and yet clearly was: every cut on the monk’s body was healing before her eyes. There was no doubt now—this monk was a thrice-damned Bloodwitch straight from Safi’s darkest nightmares. So she did the only thing she could conjure: she threw her parrying knife directly at the monk’s chest. It thunked through his rib cage and embedded deep in his heart. He stumbled forward, hitting his knees—and his red eyes locked on Safi’s. His lips curled back. With a snarl, he wrenched the knife from his chest. The wound spurted … And began to heal over.
But Safi didn’t have time for another strike. The guards were doubling back. The Guildmaster was screaming from within his carriage, and the horses were charging into a frantic gallop. Iseult darted in front of Safi, scythes flying fast and beating two arrows from the air. Then, for a brief moment, the carriage blocked the girls from the guards. Only the Bloodwitch could see them, and though he reached for his knives, he was too slow. Too drained from the magic of healing. Yet he was smiling—smiling—as if he knew something that Safi didn’t. As if he could and would hunt her down to make her pay for this. “Come on!” Iseult yanked at Safi’s arm, pulling her into a sprint toward the cliffside.
At least this was part of their plan. At least this they had practiced so often they could do it with their eyes closed. Just as the first crossbow bolts pounded the road behind them, the girls reached a waist-high boulder on the ocean side of the road. They plunked their blades back into scabbards. Then in two leaps, Safi was over the rock—and Iseult too. On the other side, the cliff ran straight down to thundering white waves. Two ropes waited, affixed to a stake pounded deep into the earth. With far more speed and force than was ever intended for this escape, Safi snatched up her rope, hooked her foot in a loop at the end, gripped a knot at head level … And jumped. TWO Air whizzed past Safi’s ears and up her nose as she sprang out … down toward white waves … away from the seventy-foot cliff … Until Safi reached the rope’s end. With a sharp yank that shattered through her body and tore into her gripping hands, she flew at the barnacle-covered cliffside.
This was about to hurt. She hit with a crash, teeth ramming her tongue. Pain sizzled through her body. Limestone cut her arms, her face, her legs. She snapped out her hands to grip the cliff—just as Iseult slammed into the rocks beside her. “Ignite,” Safi grunted. The word that triggered the rope’s magic was lost in the roar of ocean waves—but the command hit its mark. In a flash of white flame that shot up faster than eyes could travel, their ropes ignited … And disintegrated. A fine ash kicked away on the wind. A few specks settled on the girls’ kerchiefs, their shoulders.
“Arrows!” Iseult roared, flattening herself against the rock as bolts zipped past. Some skittered off the rocks, some sank into waves. One sliced through Safi’s skirt. Then she’d managed to dig her toes in cracks, grab for handholds, and scramble sideways. Her muscles trembled and strained until at last, she and Iseult had ducked beneath a slight overhang. Until at last, they could pause and let the arrows fall harmlessly around them. The rocks were wet, the barnacles vicious, and water swept at the girls’ ankles. Salty drops battered over and over. Until eventually the arrows stopped falling.