Susan Dennard’s New York Times bestselling, young adult epic fantasy Witchlands series continues with the story of the Bloodwitch Aeduan, out in February.
Aeduan has teamed up with the Threadwitch Iseult and the magical girl Owl to stop a bloodthirsty horde of raiders preparing to destroy a monastery that holds more than just faith. But to do so, he must confront his own father, and his past.
his was why Adders wore black.
Safiya fon Hasstrel understood now. Black did not show blood the way the white floors did.
The ease and speed of it all stunned her the most. One moment, she had been staring at the nobleman’s long, horse-like face, still attached to his body. The next moment, it was on the floor, bleeding, eyes blinking.
Vaness had invited the man to her throne room, as was proper when relatives visited. Cousin, second cousin, great-great-aunt’s wife— they were all met in the imperial throne room. This man was a third cousin on Vaness’s mother’s side.
After kneeling before the Empress, his purple robe rustling with the movement, he’d been so bold as to plant a sandaled foot on the lowest step of the marble dais. Mere paces from where Safi stood, dressed in a perfect sleeveless white gown exactly like the Empress’s.
He looked her up, he looked her down, obviously knowing exactly what Safi was. Vaness hadn’t kept her Truthwitch secret.
Clearly, though, the man also did not believe in Safi’s powers. His confident foot on the dais. The smile creasing through his jowled face, and even the unrushed nature of his bow, all belied skepticism.
Most people Safi had met in Azmir had been this way: so certain a Truthwitch was impossible. A story. A legend. Not a flesh-and-blood nineteen-year-old with the muscles and scars of a soldier.
Or perhaps the cousin had simply believed that, even if his lies were caught, the Empress of Marstok wouldn’t actually hurt him. Family relations and all that.
“This is my cousin Bayrum of the Shards,” Vaness said in that inflectionless, heavy way she had of speaking when at court. As if each word were carefully selected to not only express precisely what she intended, but also to convey how much thought she had put into the utterance.
Actually, now that Safi considered it, it wasn’t only at court that Vaness spoke this way.
Vaness sat upon an iron stool. No cushion, no decorative additions. Very simple, really, for a woman with as many titles as she held— Empress of the Flame Children, Chosen Daughter of the Fire Well, the Most Worshipped of the Marstoks, the Destroyer of Kendura Pass, and likely several more that Safi had forgotten.
White adorned the throne room, as it did most of the palace, and the iron sconces upon the walls held neither candles nor Firewitch flame. The domed glass ceiling overhead, crafted by Azmir’s famed Glasswitches, filled the room with more than enough morning light to see by.
A single wave of Vaness’s hand, and every iron fixture could shoot off the wall, molding into whatever shape the Empress might need.
Not that Vaness would need to defend herself with her Adders nearby. Twelve of them flanked the dais at all times, clad in black so dark it seemed to suck in the sunlight. Gloves, headscarves, and soft, silent boots—the only skin Adders ever showed was the narrowest streak of their eyes.
The black sentries were never far from their Empress, and these days, never far from Safi either. One in particular, named Rokesh, had been appointed the lead guard for Safi. He followed her everywhere, though to protect her or to keep her in line, Safi wasn’t entirely sure. She had taken to calling him Nursemaid, and surprisingly, he chuckled every time.
Safi had been exceptionally well behaved since arriving in Azmir two weeks ago. She went where she was told to go; she listened when she was told to listen; she searched for lies when she was told to search for lies. And when noblemen eyed her up and down as openly as Bayrum of the Shards was doing, then she offered a polite curtsy in return—even though she wanted to break his arms.
Habim would be very impressed by her self-control.
“How do you do?” she asked.
The man only waved her greeting aside before swiveling toward
Vaness and launching into a long-winded description of his travels. How he had crossed the Sea of Karadin in a storm, how flame hawks now nested on the mainland shores, how bandits lay in wait amidst the cotton farms beside the river.
As the man continued to list off the trials of his journey, each one more impressive than the last, Safi stared him down. Bayrum of the Shards was a liar—that much was obvious. His love for subterfuge and deception frizzled down her spine, scratching at her insides in a way that only an untrustworthy soul could.
Safi would have expected no less from a nobleman, though. At court, everyone lied. It did not matter what nation, what government, what people. Uncle Eron had once told her that when power was at play, lies grew thick as weeds and the liars beneath them flourished.
It had proved true in Cartorra, in Dalmotti, and now again in Marstok. Like weeds, though, lies were not a symptom of corruption in the soul, and truth was not a symptom of its purity. Nations could not run without blackmail or false promises or money exchanging hands, especially not nations as vast as the Marstoki Empire.
What Safi needed to know, though, was if this cousin was a part of the plot to overthrow Empress Vaness. It wasn’t a plot that Safi believed existed. Yes, there had been explosions and attacks across the city. And yes, there was a current of . . . of wrong and of rot shivering through Azmir, but that was connected to the Baedyed Pirates’ rebellion. Safi was certain of it. After all, those pirates had made their betrayal known in Saldonica, and they had already tried to kill Vaness once.
Vaness remained unconvinced, however, for one simple reason: the recent attacks had not included cries of For the Sand Sea! For the Sand Sea! This, she insisted, was the way of the Baedyeds. This, she insisted, was why another plot must be at work.
Now Safi was forced to meet every Sultanate minister, every military officer, and every backwoods imperial relation in Marstok, not to mention the massive gathering of basically everyone in the empire who came to the city for the Empress’s birthday celebration tomorrow.
It had been almost fun at first. A novelty. New faces, a chance to put all her training to the test while she sieved out the pure from the wicked. The first day, she had taken her duties very seriously, listen- ing with great care to anyone who crossed the Empress’s path. But soon, all the words, all the truths and the lies had blended into an endless cascade of meaningless nothing.
By the second day, Safi focused less. By the fifth, she had stopped listening at all. The words mattered little. If there was rot within this court, she would have to spot it another way. Her solution became three questions—very simple questions that eliminated any chance for an adept liar or devout believer to somehow trick her magic. For the reality was that Safi’s witchery was easily confused. Her power tricked by strong faith. Her magic duped by rumors or ancient mistruths.
When Bayrum of the Shards finally paused for a breath between tales of a daring escape from raiders, Safi pounced. “Are you aware of the peace treaty with the Baedyeds?”
The reaction was immediate, although to the man’s credit, he showed no panic on his face. No muscle twitched, no eyelid fluttered. “Yes. I heard Her Imperial Majesty was negotiating such an accord.”
True, Safi’s magic hummed. It caught her by surprise. Many knew of the treaty, but they usually lied about it. No one wanted to admit to partaking in gossip.
“And,” she continued, “have you heard of a plot to overthrow the Empress and claim the throne?”
“Nothing specific.” A dismissive shrug. “But such rumors always abound. Wherever there is power, flies will clot.” He smiled at Vaness, and though the expression rang false, his words rang true.
“And,” Safi asked lastly, each word carefully spaced, “did you know of the explosion on the Empress’s ship—”
“Everyone knows of it!”
“—before the attack occurred?” Safi had to pitch her voice louder to be heard, but the effect was instantaneous.
A pause, a blink. Then a slow “Of course not. What a ridiculous question.”
The lie dragged down Safi’s neck. Scratched over her skull like fingernails. The nobleman had indeed known, and such a thing was only possible if he had been involved in the plot.
A vast pit opened in Safi’s gut. Her toes tapped a descant against the tiles. Here was a man responsible for almost killing her two weeks ago. She and Vaness had survived; the Adders and crew had not been so lucky.
Safi glanced at the Empress of Marstok. Vaness had already rooted her dark eyes on Safi’s face. She arched a single eyebrow, seemingly disinterested in whatever word might fall from Safi’s tongue.
Yet just as Safi could feel the cousin’s lies, she could spot Vaness’s too. The Empress was the coiled asp, waiting for an answer and ready to act.
Safi bowed her head. “False. He knew of the attack.”
A snap from Vaness’s fingers. A cry from the cousin. Then the man’s hands were rising, his sleeves falling back to expose pale wrists and forearms.
In a blur of gray speed, iron shot from the shackles at Vaness’s wrists, wound into a disc, and sliced through the man’s neck.
His head hit the tiles. His body slumped next, blood spurting and oozing and gathering in the grout. Great pools of red that spidered and spread.
What poor servant will have to clean this? Safi wondered vaguely— also wondering why there was still no sound coming from her throat. Or why she was so calmly smoothing at her white dress. Or why she was fixating on the three spots on her hem, already drying to brown.
Somehow she kept her legs from rubbering out beneath her.
Somehow she managed to speak to Rokesh when he cut into her path as she stepped off the dais a few moments later and aimed for the door.
“I’m ill,” Safi told him. Her voice sounded so very far away. Her breakfast, however, felt very near and rising fast.
“She may go,” Vaness said curtly from behind.
At a clap from Rokesh, seven more Adders marched into a square formation around Safi. If she extended her arms, she’d brush their black shoulders. They aimed for the door, clearly knowing Safi intended to get away from this place. Away from that body.
For some reason, the unlucky servant tasked with getting the blood off that white floor was all that fed through Safi’s mind, though. She didn’t want to add to the mess by stepping through the red. She didn’t want metallic, sticky blood on her white slippers, and she didn’t want to track prints across the marble tiles or into the sandstone halls.
Around would be easier. Around, around, around.
But she couldn’t go around. Not with the Adders beside her. They stepped through the blood, and she had to step with them. It splashed and spread, and Safi tracked it out the other side.
At the wide throne room doors, Safi pushed into a jog. The Adders did too. Down the seven endless sandstone hallways they ran, aiming for the Empress’s personal living wing. Safi had sprawling quarters of her own next to Vaness’s. Next to a private library, too, which no one but the Empress and now Safi were allowed to use. So aside from the ever-present Adders stationed at every door, Safi had a sliver of privacy in her room.
Privacy for vomiting alone.
She almost made it too. Thirty paces from the ornately carved oak door, Safi’s sickness reached a head. There were few decorations in the halls, only the occasional lemon trees, sconces, and dangling iron wind chimes. Nowhere for assassins to hide. Nowhere for a sick young woman to hurl up her breakfast.
Safi had no choice but to skid to a halt and double over in the hall. Acid and bile spewed out, chunky where the chancellor’s blood had been liquid. Erratic where the blood had slithered so smooth.
More mess for the servants.
As she retched, the Adders stayed firmly planted in their square around Safi. Even when bits of bile splattered on Rokesh’s boots, none of them reacted. Nor made any move to help. A reminder that they were soldiers. That Rokesh was not a nursemaid, and he was most certainly not a friend.
Well, Safi was as disgusted with herself as the Adders no doubt were. She had killed someone. That man’s life—that man’s death— were on her now. And though she had seen death before, grim, violent, bloody, she had never been the cause of it.
Safi wiped her mouth with the collar of her dress and hauled herself upright. The world swayed, and she briefly wished at least one of the Adders would meet her gaze. Then Rokesh finally did.
“This isn’t what I wanted,” she told him, even though she knew he did not care. Still, she felt the need to make him understand. So she repeated, louder and with a throat burned raw, “This isn’t what I wanted.”
Then Safi stumbled the rest of the way to her room, blood and sickness trailing behind.
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