I waited until the sun was high over Sivrinaj to make my move. I’d spent the night praying that no one would come bother me, replacing those precious locks behind them. I was fortunate.
Raihn had left overnight and hadn’t returned yet. I was acutely aware of
that, both because my escape relied upon his absence and because I knew he could show up at any moment.
I had twisted a silver hoop earring I found in the dresser into a clumsy hook. The top lock, a sliding bolt, slipped easily. But the second… the second gave me trouble. I had very little space to work with between the various locks, and the metal was stiff. Several times, I stopped just short of snapping my makeshift pick in half.
“Fuck,” I hissed.
You have more power than this silly little hook, Vincent whispered in my ear.
My gaze fell from the broken silver to my fingertips holding it.
All the doors and windows and locks in this place were, of course, fortified against magic. But even if that hadn’t been the case, my magic had felt very far away these last few weeks. Calling upon it required me to dig too deep, right into all these tender wounds I couldn’t even think about opening—I worried that I’d bleed to death before I could close them again.
But… Nightfire, maybe, could melt that one little bar of metal that held this door closed.
I dreaded so much as trying. But if I had a chance at freedom, I wasn’t about to relinquish it because I was too scared of myself to try.
The first call to my magic was met with nothing.
I gritted my teeth. Dug deeper. It hit on things I’d been trying to bury these last few weeks.
I taught you better than this, Vincent whispered.
I thought of his voice. His face, framed against the sands of the colosseum, bloody and raw and—
The burst of Nightfire was too hot, too bright. It engulfed my hand. I clamped down hard on the wave of grief, anger, sadness.
Control, little serpent, Vincent snapped. Control!
I can’t focus with you lecturing me, I thought, then swallowed shame at the sudden silence of his voice.
I took a deep breath, two, until my heartbeat slowed. The flame dimmed a little.
I whittled the Nightfire down until it was a small orb, then dipped my broken twisted silver into it. The Nightfire hovered at its end like a flame to a match.
There was no way this was going to work, I thought, then jammed the twisted metal through the gap between the door and the frame—pressing metal to metal. I poured my magic into my connection to that little Nightflame—
The door flew open. I went rolling across the tile floor, stopping myself just short of sliding into the opposite wall.
I looked down. A twist of partially melted, scorched metal lay on the tile. I slipped it into my pocket, then turned around to see my bedchamber door.
Wide open. The hallway was empty. I was out. For now.
Goddess fucking help me.
I quickly—silently—closed my door, rubbing away scorch marks best I could. The second lock was broken, but hopefully no casual passerby would notice that.
It was wartime. I’d seen firsthand what that looked like in this castle. Daylight or no, most hallways would be occupied or heavily guarded. Certainly the weapon stores. And definitely exits.
But I could get around that.
My lips twisted with a smirk of satisfaction. The movement felt uncomfortable, like the muscles were out of practice.
Good thing I knew this castle better than anyone.
VINCENT HAD BEEN A VERY cautious man. He’d renovated this castle to add passageways and tunnels and confusing hallways that led nowhere— infinitely aware of the possibility that, one day, his fortress could be turned against him.
He’d showed me some of these hallways when I was young, making me memorize the paths to his wing. Even when I was only a child, he never sugarcoated why it was so important that I knew this. “This is a dangerous world, little serpent,” he’d said. “I’ll teach you how to fight, but I’ll also teach you how to flee.”
He never showed me all the passageways, of course—he didn’t want to give me too much freedom. But I’d explored the other ones, too, in secret.
Today, though, I followed the path my father had left for me. It was downright stupid to run straight for the outdoors. Yes, it was daylight, and that might help me—but guards would be watching everywhere. I needed to know what I was getting into. I needed a weapon—
My step faltered as I remembered what I had done the last time I’d held a blade. The last heart I’d pierced.
I shook away the memory of Raihn’s dead face, narrowly escaped the image of Vincent’s, and continued down the hall.
I could hear distant voices near the stairwell. One of the entrances to Vincent’s web of hallways was nearby. No one had discovered it yet, it seemed. It was well hidden, the seams of the door covered by strategically placed tapestries. Sometimes these passageways were locked, but today, I was lucky. The door opened easily to my touch.
The tunnels were narrow, lit by forever-fueled Nightfire torches. They had been constructed around the existing layout of the castle, so they were convoluted and awkward to navigate. Many of the doors inside were locked, leaving me little option but to push forward and down several sets
of stairs. Most of the other exits here would lead into hidden passages within various bedchambers—the last thing I wanted was to end up in some Rishan general’s room. Instead, I traveled down several sets of tight, winding stairs. Farther still, until I reached the ground floor—until I passed it.
I had rarely been allowed to come here as a child, but I still remembered exactly where it was. Vincent treasured his privacy, and he got very little of it. So, near the beginning of his reign, he’d had a new basement dug out beneath the easternmost tower of the castle—an underground wing that was specifically for him.
It had two access points. One led right up to the ground floor—I could escape through there. But more importantly, Vincent had often kept weapons and supplies in his rooms. I could arm myself before I left.
The wing’s entrance was closed—a set of oak double doors, stained black, that seemed to melt right into the shadows save for their silver handles. I held my breath as I eased them open, very slowly, very silently. I didn’t know for sure that the Rishan hadn’t discovered this place. Vincent’s wing was private, but not a secret.
But my luck, it seemed, held out a little longer. Not a soul.
An empty hallway stood before me. This one, unlike the dark, poorly maintained paths I’d come from, looked like it belonged in this castle. Indigo blue tile floors. Black doors. Silver knobs. Hiaj art framed in gilded presentations on the walls. Eight doors lay ahead of me, four on each side, and then a stairwell that led up, cradled by swooping silver rails.
I hadn’t been here in so long. I didn’t know or remember what all these rooms contained. I tried the first two doors to find them locked. The third. The fourth. Fuck. Maybe they were all locked, and I wasted my precious freedom to come down here for—
The fifth door opened.
I froze. Stopped breathing. Stopped moving.
I stood in the open doorway, my hand still on the knob. Oh, Goddess.
It smelled like him. For a moment, it felt agonizingly like my father hadn’t died. Like he was in this room somewhere, a book cradled in his hands, a serious line between his brows.
The past barreled over me like splintered steel, just as sharp and just as painful.
It was a small room, smaller than Vincent’s other offices. A large wooden desk sat at its center, and two velvet armchairs in the corner near the fireplace. Bookcases lined the walls, boasting hundreds of black and burgundy and silver and blue spines of old but well-kept books. The desk was covered with clutter—open tomes, papers, notes, and what looked like a pile of broken glass at its center.
When I could make myself move again, I went to the desk.
It was far more cluttered than Vincent usually left things. Then again… at the end, he’d been…
Well. I avoided thinking about the way he’d been in those last few months.
My eyes fell to a wine glass sitting among the notes, dried red caked at its bottom. If I looked closely, I could see little smudges near its stem— fingerprints. I reached out to touch it, then pulled away just short, not wanting to mar those remnants of him.
Even losing Ilana hadn’t prepared me for this. The sheer degree of fucking obsession that grief forces upon you. It took everything I had to force my mind to think about something other than him—it had exhausted me so completely.
But now that I was here, surrounded by him, I never wanted to leave. I wanted to curl up in this chair. I wanted to cocoon myself in the coat left casually slung over one of the armchairs. I wanted to wrap this wine glass in silk and preserve his fingerprints forever.
I picked through the papers on the table. He’d been working hard. Inventories. Maps. Reports about the attack on the Moon Palace. I rifled through the stack of letters, and paused, my hand shaking, at a piece of parchment.
Debrief, the top read. Salinae.
It was written in very matter of fact, straightforward language. A simple accounting of resources and outcome.
The city of Salinae and its surrounding districts have been eliminated.
One sentence, and I was once again standing in the dead remnants of Salinae. The dust. The toxic mist. The fucking smell.
The way Raihn’s voice had wavered when he held that street sign. This is Salinae.
And now here on my father’s desk was this brief, one-page report, outlining so drily how he had destroyed my homeland. Murdered any family I’d had left.
Lied to me about it.
You weren’t going to tell me, I’d spat at him.
You are not like them, he’d snarled at me.
The parchment quivered in my hands. I put it down quickly, pushing it to the back of the pile.
As I did, I glimpsed a faint silver glint. I pushed aside an open tome.
Buried beneath it was a tiny, crudely made dagger.
A lump rose in my throat.
I had made this not long after I’d come into Vincent’s care. It was the first time I’d felt comfortable enough to ask for a project to work on and safe enough to actually do it. I’d liked chipping away at stone—I didn’t even remember why, now. But I did remember making this little dagger, and the pit of nervousness in my stomach when I’d presented it to him. I had held my breath when he surveyed it, face stoic.
“Good,” he had said, after a long moment, and he’d tucked it into his pocket, and that had been that. The first of countless times I’d found myself reaching for Vincent’s approval and wondering desperately whether I’d gotten it.
And now here it was, lying with the death warrants of thousands.
Two versions of him that I couldn’t reconcile in life, and now was even further from understanding in his death.
Vincent the king, who would kill my whole family in the name of power, who would slaughter an entire race, who would lie to me for nearly twenty years about my blood to protect his crown.
And Vincent the father, who kept this little makeshift trinket I’d made him, right there with all his most precious possessions. Who had told me he loved me with his final breaths.
How convenient it would be, if I found a letter tucked away in one of his drawers. My little serpent, it would read. If you’re reading this, then I am gone. It would be unfair for me to leave you with no answers…
But Vincent was not the kind of man who wrote down his secrets. Maybe I’d told myself I was coming here for supplies, but really, I was coming here for answers.
A fucking dream.
Because instead, this was a room that made as little sense as he did. I found nothing here but discarded pieces of him, just as disparate in death as they were in life.
My eyes burned. My chest ached. A sob bubbled up inside of me with such violence that I had to press my hand over my mouth to stifle it.
I never used to cry. Now, it seemed like the more I tried to stop myself, the more viciously it clawed its way out of me.
I choked it down with an ugly sound that I was grateful no one could hear.
No fucking time for this, Oraya, I told myself. This isn’t what you’re here for.
My gaze fell to the center of the desk—the pile of broken glass. That was peculiar. It was mirrored, the shards neatly stacked on top of each other, as if someone had assembled them into a perfectly aligned pile. The metal reminded me of the full moon, silver bright and gleaming with hammered indents that shivered beneath the cold light. Elegant swirls adorned its smooth edge, driving to the center before being interrupted by the jagged edge. I squinted and could make out a faint cast in those carved lines—red-black. Blood…?
Why would he keep this broken trinket here? Right in the middle of his work?
I touched the edge of the top shard— A gasp ripped through me.
The edge was razor sharp. It sliced open my fingertip, leaving a streak of red rolling to the edge—but I barely noticed either the cut or the pain.
Because the shards began to move.
In the span of a blink, the shards of glass spread out, locking into place with each other—forming a shallow, mirrored bowl, the drops of my blood rolling down to be cradled in its center.
And yet, as shocking as this was, what left me staggering was the sudden, overwhelming, disorienting sense of Vincent—Vincent as he’d been in this room, standing where I stood, blood spilling into the same bowl. A sudden, intense anxiety rose in my throat, all in broken pieces—fragmented thoughts of cities, generals, Sivrinaj, Salinae, hundreds of feathered wings staked throughout the city walls. Anger and possession and determination, but beneath it all, a powerful fear.
I yanked my hand away, gasping. I felt nauseous, dizzy.
I thought I’d imagined the voice at first. “Vincent? Highness? I—how can—”
The voice was faint and distorted, as if coming from somewhere very, very far away, and through heavy winds.
But even so, I recognized it. “Jesmine?” I whispered.
I peered into the bowl again. My blood pooled there, spreading out more than such a small quantity of liquid should have, coating the silver.
I squinted and leaned closer. The flickering reflection of the Nightflame made it hard to see, but was something moving—?
The voice—confused—was definitely Jesmine’s. I could barely hear
I was now bent over the desk, my forearms braced, my awareness
pulled in so many directions—to the faint presence of Jesmine, somewhere many miles away, to the presence of Vincent in the past.
This was a communication tool of some kind. A spell, a— Voices.
Not Jesmine’s. No, these were here, in the hallway outside. One was Raihn’s.
I yanked my hand away from the device, and the silver collapsed back into countless shards, falling again into a neat pile. I winced at the metallic sound they made crashing against the wood.
I swept them up and shoved them into my pocket, my eyes glued to the door.
The two voices grew closer. The other, I realized a few seconds later, was Cairis’s.
“—long to find it,” Cairis was saying.
Footsteps. Down the other staircase. My escape route. “Has the guard gone through all this yet?” Raihn asked. “Not yet.”
“He made a lot of changes to the place.”
There was a strange note to his voice at that—one that seemed obvious to me, but that Cairis breezed right by.
“They’ll start in on these rooms as soon as they’re done with the upstairs studies,” Cairis said.
“Nothing new. We already know who we need to kill. The hard part is getting to them. But getting rid of Misrada will help with that. Septimus seems confident.”
“Well, as long as Septimus is confident.” Raihn’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “At least that will get some of them out of our way.”
The footsteps grew louder. I shrank back as I watched the sliver of light beneath the door—watched shadows flicker across it.
I stopped breathing. I shrank back against the wall, trying to put as much space between me and them as I could.
But they just kept walking. “This place was kept out of the way,” Cairis said. “Maybe he kept the good shit down—what?”
My short-lived breath of relief stilled.
One set of footsteps—Raihn’s—had stopped. “What is it?” Cairis said, again.
“Nothing. Just curiosity.”
Raihn was a good actor. He always sold his lies well.
“You go ahead,” he said to Cairis. “I’d like to look around in here instead first.”
“You want me to call someone to help you?”
“Honestly, I’m dying for a little privacy. Want to hear myself think for once.”
Cairis chuckled, and I glanced frantically around the office. The only hiding place was under the desk. A comically terrible choice. Still, it was better than nothing.
As I ducked down beneath the desk, I caught one final glimpse of all my father’s work—papers and diagrams that showed exactly how much he loved his kingdom, and how much of his blood and sweat he poured into building and protecting his empire.
His empire. My empire.
And here I was cowering under a fucking desk.
A sudden, agonizing wave of shame swallowed me as I slid beneath the wood.
Just as one set of footsteps faded away, and the other drew closer.
Just as the door swung open and a familiar voice said, “Did you really think I wouldn’t smell you, princess?”