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VIKING An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC 375 Hudson Street New York, New York 10014

First published in the United States of America by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018 Copyright © 2018 by David Arnold Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Names: Arnold, David, 1981– author. Title: The strange fascinations of Noah Hypnotik / David Arnold. Description: New York : Viking Books for Young Readers, [2018] | Summary: “This is Noah Oakman, sixteen, Bowie believer, concise historian, disillusioned swimmer, son, brother, friend. Then Noah gets hypnotized. Now Noah sees changes—inexplicable scars, odd behaviors, rewritten histories—in all those around him. All except his Strange Fascinations” —Provided by publisher. Identifiers: LCCN 2017038030 | ISBN 9780425288863 (hardcover) Subjects: | CYAC: Best friends—Fiction. | Friendship—Fiction. | Brothers and sisters—Fiction. | Twins—Fiction. | Hypnotism—Fiction. | Family life—Illinois—Fiction. | Illinois—Fiction. Classification: LCC PZ7.A7349 Str 2018 | DDC [Fic]—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017038030 Printed in U.S.A.   Set in New Aster LT Std   Book design by Kate Renner 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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THIS IS x PART ONE “It’s not enough to put myself into my art— I have to die to it. And that’s how I know it’s something.” —Mila Henry, excerpt from the Portland Press Herald interview, 1959

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1 o that sadness feels heavier underwater

I’ll hold my breath and tell you what I mean: I first discovered the Fading Girl two months and two days ago, soon after summer began dripping its smugly sunny smile all over the place. I was with Alan, per usual. We had fallen down the YouTube rabbit hole, which was a thing we did from time to time. Generally speaking, I hate YouTube, mostly because Alan is all, I just have to show you this one thing, yo, but inevitably one thing becomes seventeen things, and before I know it, I’m watching a sea otter operate a vending machine, thinking, Where the fuck did I go wrong? And look: I am not immune to the allure of the sea otter, but at a certain point a guy has to wonder about all the life decisions he’s made that have landed him on a couch, watching a glorified weasel press H9 for a bag of SunChips. Quiet, and a little sad, but in a real way, drifting through the Rosa-Haas pool—I fucking love it here. I would live here. For the sake of precision: the Fading Girl video is a rapid time-lapse compilation of photographs clocking in at just over twelve minutes. It’s entitled One Face, Forty Years: An Examination of the Aging Process, and underneath it a caption reads: “Daily self-portraits from 1977 to 2015. I got tired.” (I love that last part, as if the Fading Girl felt the need to explain why she hadn’t quite made it the full forty years.) In the beginning, she’s probably in her early twenties, with

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blonde hair, long and shimmery, and bright eyes like a sunrise through a waterfall. At about the halfway mark the room changes, which I can only assume means she moved, but in the background, her possessions remain the same: a framed watercolor of mountains, a porcelain Chewbacca figurine, and elephants everywhere. Statues, posters, T-shirts—the Fading Girl had an elephant obsession, safe to say. She’s always indoors, always alone, and—other than the move, and a variety of haircuts—she looks the same in every photo: no smile, staring straight into the camera, every day for forty years. Always the same, until: changes. Okay, I have to breathe now.

I love this moment: breaking the surface, inhale, wet hair in the hot sun. Alan is all, “Dude.” The moment would be better alone, to be honest. “That was like a record,” says Val. “You okay?” A few more deep breaths, a quick smile, and . . . I love this moment even more: dipping beneath the surface. Something about being underwater allows me to feel at a higher capacity—the silence and weightlessness, I think. It’s my favorite thing about swimming.

The earlier shots are scanned-in Polaroids, but as the time lapse progresses and the resolution of the photos increases,

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the brightness of the Fading Girl begins to diminish: little by little, the hair thins; little by little, the eyes dim; little by little, the face withers, the skin droops, the bright young waterfall becomes a darkened millpond, one more victim in the septic tank of aging. And it doesn’t make me sad so much as leave an impression of sadness, like watching a stone sink but never hit bottom. Every day for forty years. I’ve watched the video hundreds of times now: at night before bed, in the morning before school, in the library during lunch, on my phone during class, in my head during the in-betweens, I hum the Fading Girl like a song over and over again, and every time it ends I swear I’ll never watch it again. But like the saddest human boomerang, I always come back. Twelve minutes of staring at your screen and watching a person die. It’s not violent. It’s not immoral or shameful; nothing is done to her that isn’t done to all of us, in turn. It’s called An Examination of the Aging Process, but I call bullshit. That girl isn’t aging; she’s fading. And I can’t look away. There it is, the inevitable shoulder tap. Time to join the land of the breathing.

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2 o the delicate triangle

“The fuck, Noah? You trying to drown yourself?” Val is on a float in the middle of the pool, wearing these giant sunglasses, sipping some kind of homemade daiquiri. “For real,” says Alan, popping a handful of caramel corn into his mouth. He’s been working on this giant tin can (the kind with forests and snow and frolicking deer painted on the side) most of the afternoon. “Ours is a delicate triangle, yo. You drowning fucks up the whole system.” Val and Alan Rosa-Haas are twins. The Rosa-Haas house is a quick walk from my own, plus it has this amazing inground pool and Mr. and Mrs. Rosa-Haas are rarely around, so you tell me. Alan was the first kid I met when my family moved to Iverton. We were twelve and he came over to my house and we read in my room, and he told me he thought he was gay, and I was like, “Uh, okay,” and he was all, “Um, uh,” and it was totally squirrely. And then he said not to tell anyone, and I said I wouldn’t. And he said, “If you do tell, I’ll whiz on your hamster.” Back then I had this arthritic hamster called Goliath, and I didn’t want some kid whizzing on him, so I assured Alan that my lips were pretty much sealed. Later I found out I was the first person Alan had come out to, and, at twelve, I had no idea how important a step this was. All I knew was my hamster was in dangerous proximity to a person threatening whiz. I asked Alan why he didn’t want me to say anything, and he told me I wouldn’t understand. A couple years later he came

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out publicly—and kids called him terrible names, and kids jumped a mile in the air when he bumped into them in the halls, and kids moved tables when he sat with them at lunch, not all kids, but so many kids—and I found out just how right he’d been. “I hadn’t planned to tell you,” he’d said in my room that day when we were twelve. And he told me how he felt like a shaken-up can of Coke, and how I just happened to be around when the lid blew off. I told him I was fine with that. So long as he didn’t whiz on Goliath. We made a pact. And then we whizzed out the window together. Truth is, from the moment I met Alan, I knew I loved him. He loves me a lot too. When we were younger, we talked about what it would be like if I were gay, to which he always said, “As if I’d even be into you, Oakman,” to which I usually flexed a budding bicep, raised a single eyebrow, and nodded in slomo, as if to say, How could anyone not be into this?, and we laughed and imagined it was so. We imagined how we’d get married and buy a cabin in the mountains somewhere and just spend our days weaving baskets and eating out of iron skillets and talking about deep things. But that was a long time ago. “Who gave us this, anyway?” asks Alan, perched out on the edge of the diving board, swinging his pruned feet over the water. “Who gave us what?” asks Val. “This piece of shit.” He holds the now-empty tin above his head. “Okay, you basically just made love to that caramel corn,” says Val. “Now you’re done with it, you’re calling it names?”

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“That’s not his point,” I say, treading water by the edge of the pool. “Exactly. No one buys these things for themselves,” says Alan. “It’s a blow-off gift, an afterthought. Should come with a card that says, You mean next to nothing to me.” Val is all, “Well, I think it’s a nice gesture, but I’ll be sure to express your displeasure with the Lovelocks next time I see them.” “Wait, like, the Lovelocks? Up on Piedmont?” “They were over for dinner the other night. You were at practice.” Alan tosses the empty tin into the swimming pool, all, “A pox on the Lovelocks!” and dives in with a yell. Val rolls her eyes, lays her head back on the float. Unlike Alan—who is pale year-round, taking after his father in what he calls the “perpetual Haas hue”—Val is always the first of us to tan. When we were young, she was just my best friend’s annoying sister, a constant unwanted presence like a gnat buzzing our faces. Cut to the summer before high school, and one day she opens the door and I’m all, Uh, hey, Val, uh, um, like, uh. It’s a deafening finality, getting smacked in the face with that first notion that perhaps sex isn’t gross after all. Like a two-by-four, really. I don’t know if it happened slowly, right under my nose, or if it was an overnight thing, but I suddenly found Val’s presence far less annoying. That year I asked her to homecoming, and she said yes, and it was a little weird because we’d known each other so long, but it also felt like one of those things that needed trying. So we tried it. And here’s what that looked like: me holding Val’s hand in the hall-

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way for all of two minutes before Alan sees us; thinking it’s a joke, Alan busts a gut laughing; realizing it’s not, he swings into complete and utter berserkery. That was the last time we held hands, and the first time Alan referred to us as “the delicate triangle.” Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally think about her like that. Val has this charm about her, smart without being arrogant, funny without taking over the room. She makes little comments under her breath as if annotating the situation, and you get the feeling she’d do this whether anyone was within earshot or not, which makes you feel lucky just being in her orbit. Also, she has perfect breasts. Alan backstrokes the length of the pool. He’s getting faster, which I almost say out loud, but I know where that will lead: The team misses you, Noah. We need you, No. How’s the back, No? You okay, No? “You okay, No?” asks Val, like out of nowhere, too. A byproduct of the triangle, I guess: near telepathy. “It’s fine,” I say. “Doing better, I think.” She pushes those huge sunglasses up her forehead. “What?” Shit. “Sorry,” I say. “I thought you meant my back.” “I meant you zoned out. But . . . now you bring it up, how is your back?” “It’s fine.” “Doing better, you think?” She lets her sunglasses fall back into place, sips her daiquiri, and stares at me. No one does unnerving like Val. I climb out of the pool, head toward the diving board. “Dr. Kirby said to take it easy, right?” she says, but it’s a

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big pool, and she’s drifted near the opposite end, so I pretend not to hear. And maybe I can escape Val’s stare, but her first question climbs right out of the pool and follows me like a dripping shadow: You okay, No? Up on the diving board now, right out on the edge. The sun is almost down, and there’s that warm kind of dimness that only late summer can bring, when the air feels milky, and it’s beautiful but kind of sad watching the day die right in front of you like that, knowing there’s nothing you can do for it. I guess the sun and the Fading Girl are a lot alike. You okay, No? It’s like this: one summer, when I was eight (pre-Iverton days), I went to this camp where I made a bunch of new friends who taught me how to make slingshots, and that’s where I had my first (and only) cigarette, and this one kid even had a picture of a lady in her underwear, which prompted an eye-opener of a talk, and that was when I learned sex was more than just naked kissing. Then, after camp was over and I came home, I went back to playing with my old friends and realized they knew nothing of slingshots and cigarettes. They did not know sex was more than naked kissing. Much as I love Val and Alan—and it’s a lot—it sometimes feels like they know nothing of slingshots and cigarettes. Like they still think sex is just naked kissing. Across the pool, Val slides off the float, grabs one of those long foam noodles, and whales on Alan’s head; he splashes her back, and they laugh carelessly in that summer way people do. I close my eyes, dive, give myself over completely to the

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water, and there, submerged in its slumber, I imagine a diagram of my heart:

Whatever portions were once filled by the people I cared about most have been transplanted with Old Man Goiter, the Abandoned Photograph, Mila Henry’s Year of Me, and the Fading Girl. I do not know how or why this happened. I call them my Strange Fascinations.

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3 o some thoughts on Iverton and home and walking while walking home through Iverton

Iverton, Illinois, is the personification of its resident youth: someone gave it the keys, a credit card, and no curfew, and now it thinks its shit doesn’t stink. The suburb is populated by these gaudy, homogeneous brick houses, each a clone of the one next to it; driveways and garages are stocked with a variety of shiny SUVs, lawns are pushed to the greenest of greens, and trees grow in suspiciously symmetrical fashion. “How white is Iverton?” Alan would ask. “How white?” I would respond. “So white, the snow doesn’t show.” Val and Alan’s mom is from San Juan, Puerto Rico, their father of Dutch descent. (“Rosas come second to none,” was all Mrs. Rosa-Haas would say anytime someone asked about their last name. Apparently it was the only way she would agree to marry Mr. Rosa-Haas.) In a town like Iverton, being half Puerto Rican means half the people assume Val and Alan are white, and the other half ask questions like, “No, really, where are you from?” Last year this kid on the swim team asked Alan that question, to which Alan said, “Iverton,” to which the kid said, “No, I mean, from from,” to which Alan said, “Ohhhhh, I thought you meant from from from-from-from froooooooooooooom,” to which the kid turned every shade of red, pretended to hear his cell ring, and walked away. Val and Alan get this shit all the time, and they pretend it doesn’t bother them—and maybe it doesn’t, what do I know.

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But I’ll never forget something Alan said once. “It’s like this town wants me to be Rosa or Haas. Like it can’t deal with me being both at the same time.” So, yes, Iverton may have the keys, the credit card, and no curfew, but me-oh-my, does its shit stink.

Halfway home now, and I will give it this: after dark, on a clean summer night, Iverton is highly walkable. Some might argue that walking is the slowest method of getting from point A to point B, and fair enough, but for me, getting from points A to B is only an ancillary benefit. I find inherent value in the steps themselves. This is exponentially true of my walks to and from the Rosa-Haas house, as if I’m closest to my true self when I am somewhere between my friends and family. I walk up our driveway, past the assortment of Oakman automobiles: my Hyundai hatchback (which Alan refers to as my fun guy ballsack), Dad’s Pontiac station wagon (complete with wood paneling and a backward-facing trunk seat), and Mom’s ancient Land Rover. If you listen closely, you can actually hear the neighborhood’s collective sigh of disapproval. We bought this house shortly after the passing of Papa Oak, who lived his final years as a semi-reclusive widower, and who, upon his death, confirmed suspicions regarding his net worth. Everyone in the family got a sizeable chunk, at which point I learned something: if nothing reveals the deepest desire of one’s heart like a windfall, my father’s deepest desire had less to do with torque and German engines, and more to do with suburban bliss. Dad is a vegan chef, and

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he does okay for himself: weddings, bar mitzvahs, and bat mitzvahs, mostly. And while Mom is an attorney, she works for the state government, which means we basically owe our house to Papa Oak (RIP). I’m hardly through the front door when I hear Mom from the living room, all, “Hey, honey.” It’s her knee-jerk response to the two-beep alarm anytime a door in the house opens. Beep-beep-hey-honey. I could swear I hear them whispering, but when I round the corner into the living room, they’re all smiles, snuggled up on the couch, watching an episode of Friends. “How was the pool?” asks Dad, pushing pause. “Fine,” I say, imagining myself pausing them. My parents are basically super in love, which, kudos to them, but it’s a bit much sometimes. Take this ritual with Friends, for example. They watch at least one episode a night from their prized DVD collection. Dad with his bourbon, Mom with her wine, they sing, “I’ll Be There for You” in unison and recite all of Joey’s lines right along with Matt LeBlanc. “How’s your back?” asks Mom. “Any developments?” Developments. Like my back is a riveting television miniseries. “It’s okay,” I say, careful to keep the descriptive language as vague as possible lest Mom put on her cross-examination hat. “A little tight, but okay.” Our half-dead Shar-Pei hijacks the conversation by walking into a wall. Dad scoops him up, all, “Poor Fluff,” gently settling the dog onto his lap. Fluffenburger the Freaking Useless limps around the house, generally owning the crap out of his name, and while he is most definitely not a lapdog, try telling that to my dad. Ever since last year’s incident, in

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which Fluff yapped himself permanently hoarse, my parents seem to think of our ancient dog as more of a human toddler. “Dinner?” I ask. Mom sips her wine. “It was my turn to cook,” she says, which means chicken cordon bleu. Dad calls it his “vegan cheat night,” and he pretends to love it, but I know the truth: he loves her, and it’s all she can make. “Penny got hungry, so we ate already, but I put a plate in the microwave. Just push start, should be good to go.” I head toward the kitchen, and again, just out of earshot— I hear some whispering. Probably sweet nothings. Probably I don’t want to know. I connect my phone to the Bluetooth speaker in the kitchen, play Bowie’s Hunky Dory, press start on the microwave, and stare at the spinning plate. My hunger has decreased significantly since I stopped swimming competitively, and during that time the idea of food has become kind of weird to me, animalistic even. The tearing, the chewing, the crunching, even the word—masticate—suggests some wildly carnal activity. I mean, we’re basically a bunch of wolves. The microwave beeps, the plate stops spinning, my prey awaits. I carry it over to the bar counter where Mom has a napkin and a drink and silverware all set out for me. And right there beside it is a Post-it with my name on it (in Mom’s handwriting) followed by five exclamation points and an arrow pointing to the voicemail light on the home telephone. Dad insists we keep a landline as “home base” for his business calls, and while we mostly end up with one sales pitch after another, there is one other thing this phone is designated for, my only personal experience using it: recruiting calls.

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In the background Bowie sings of lawmen and cavemen, sailors fighting in dance halls, and I wish he were here now, in this kitchen with me, and I would hold his hand and together we would talk of life—on Mars, or otherwise.

4 o a concise history of me, part nineteen

On January 8, 1947, David Robert Jones was born in London. It was a Wednesday. It was snowy. Somewhere across the Atlantic, a little boy named Elvis celebrated his twelfth birthday. Neither was considered a musical prodigy, though both would go on to shake music to its core, shaping and reshaping it until the word itself—music—was hardly recognizable. When baby David was born, legend has it the midwife claimed, “This child has been on Earth before.” Years later, David Robert Jones became David Bowie, and people speculated that perhaps he’d spent time on other planets too. When Elvis was born—January 8, twelve years prior—his twin brother was stillborn. Gladys Presley would go on to tell friends that her son Elvis “had the energy of two.” For much of his life, Elvis was haunted by his twin brother’s death and by his own seemingly random survival. Some people have been on Earth before and some people never get the chance.

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On January 8, 1973, an unmanned spacecraft called Luna 21 successfully launched into orbit. After landing on the moon, Luna 21 deployed a Soviet robotic lunar rover called the Lunokhod 2, which took over 80,000 TV pictures and 86 panoramic images. Little David grew up, wrote songs about astronauts and space, and released a record the same month Apollo 11 landed on the moon. (Apollo being, among other things, the god of music.) Years later, David Bowie’s son would make a movie called Moon. Little Elvis grew up and joined a band called the Blue Moon Boys. He had a daughter who would go on to marry an iconic musician known for a dance move called the moonwalk. Later, Elvis would strike out on his own, eventually hiring a man named Thomas Parker as his manager. About Parker, Elvis would say, “I don’t think I’d have ever been very big if it wasn’t for him.” Thomas Parker’s nickname was Colonel Tom. Colonel Tom made Elvis a star. David Bowie wrote a song about Major Tom, who was left to float among the stars. Luna 21 and the Lunokhod 2 are no longer on the moon. Little David and Little Elvis and the moonwalk dancer are also out of commission. Their music is alive, though. I’ve heard it, I know. And so are those pictures from the Lunokhod 2. I’ve seen them, I know. I often wonder about the subtle connectors of the universe stretching through time and space, some skipping from one star to the next like smooth stones across a pond,

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some left to float through the wide, aimless infinite. I wonder about words like reincarnation and relativity and parallel. And I wonder if any of those stones ever land in the same place twice. I was born on January 8.

5 o I am thinking about wolves again

It started freshman year. Alan said, “We should join the swim team,” and so we did. For as many hours as we spent in the Rosa-Haas pool, and for as many races as I’d won, I figured why not. Turned out I was pretty good—fast, not the fastest. Then, sophomore year, I grew into my limbs or something, because suddenly my times were ridiculous. Not Olympic ridiculous, but good enough to get early interest from a few lower-level D1 schools like Saint Louis, Manhattan State University, Eastern Michigan, and University of Milwaukee. (My parents were especially excited about the prospect of UM, as Milwaukee was just a couple hours from Iverton.) Junior year my times continued to improve, interest escalated, and by July 1 of this year—the first day a college coach can call a recruit—I got two phone calls: one from Coach Tao at Manhattan State and one from Coach Stevens at Milwaukee, both indicating a potential full ride. These weren’t elite schools with deep pockets, so full scholarships

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were few and far between, a fact made abundantly clear to me on the regular. The great secret: I don’t love it. Swimming was just this thing I enjoyed, this thing I was pretty good at, and before I knew it, a thing I was really good at, and then everyone was all, Welp, I guess this is the path for you, young man, talking about swimming with a gleam in their eyes so bright, they never noticed I didn’t have one for myself. And then this summer happened. Long-course training (Olympic fifty-meter), I’m in the middle of the pool, when I start cramping and my whole body clams up. Someone pulls me out, and Coach Kel is all, “You okay, Oak? What’s wrong? What hurts?” And without even thinking, I say, “My back.” That’s it. All it took. I wasn’t off the team, I didn’t have to quit—I just didn’t have to swim anymore. As it turns out, back injuries aren’t always straightforward, so it’s not terribly difficult to perpetuate the lie as long as I keep it vague. I have regular appointments with a chiropractor, Dr. Kirby; most mornings I have physical fitness drills with Coach Kel, who assures me this will go a long way not only toward keeping me in shape, but also toward showing college coaches I’m serious about rehab. Mom and Dad and Coach tag-team calls with the schools, and right off the bat, Saint Louis and Eastern Michigan drop out. I don’t know if it’s Mom’s courtroom prowess or what, but both Coach Stevens at Milwaukee and Coach Tao at Manhattan State agree to stick it out for a while. The last few weeks have been full of played-out hypothetical situations. Mom or Dad go on about the importance of acting with urgency at the first sign of an offer, to which I remind them that most swimmers don’t commit until spring. “Yes,”

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Mom says, “but most swimmers haven’t missed weeks of practice with a back injury.” Then Dad says something along the lines of striking while the iron is hot, to which Mom says, “If you’re lucky enough to get an offer this fall, you really want to wait and see if it’s still there in the spring?” I never said much at this point. There was no real offer on the table, so I didn’t see that it mattered much. But now: a voicemail on the landline, and a Post-it with exclamation points. I look at the plate of chicken in front of me and envy the wolf its simplicity. I imagine it spending hours tracking its prey, chasing it, the violent takedown—and in the end, dropping it from its jowls, leaving it uneaten, and calmly walking away. I pick up the phone, press the voicemail button: “Hi, guys, Coach Stevens here. I’ve got some good news. . . .”

6 o the further away, the stronger the urge

“You have to come, No. Everyone is going to be there.” Val should know better than to think that last part was sweetening the deal, especially given the portrait of my life at this moment: sprawled in bed, laptop on stomach, Coke in hand, halfway through my third Gilmore Girls episode of the afternoon.

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“Which one is this?” she asks, plopping down next to me. Before I can answer, she’s all, “Ohhh, right.” Val is a Gilmore junkie. She’s seen every episode, including the reboot season, like, a half dozen times. “Wait, don’t tell me,” says Alan, perusing my bookshelves like he hasn’t done it a hundred times before. “Luke and Lorelai flirt, sexual tension meets butter knife, nothing happens, the end.” “Alan,” says Val. “You have zero romantic wherewithal.” “Valeria. I have no idea what that means.” On-screen, Lorelai walks into Luke’s for something like her fourth coffee of the afternoon. “Do they ever drink water in Stars Hollow?” I ask. “Only when filtered through a bean.” Alan likes to dump on Gilmore Girls, but on more than one occasion, Val and I have overheard him belting the opening theme song from his room with all the off-key gusto of the Lollipop Guild. “However,” he says, “I have to admit, Stars Hollow in the winter is dope as fuck.” I nod from my little pillow nest. “Wish they’d capitalize the g in girls during the opening credits, though.” “Right?” he says. “What is that?” “It’s completely asymmetrical, is what it is.” “Okay.” Val pushes the space bar to pause, sits up, crosses her legs and arms. “Noah. I want you to come to this party tonight. For me. Please.” I don’t move a muscle. Stasis, inertia, the complete physical atrophy of a morning and early afternoon spent on nothing but Netflix: these are the things I will miss most about summer. “You know how I feel about people making me do things,” I say.

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“I’m not making you. God. I’m asking.” “And I’m saying I can feel summer slipping through the hourglass like the sands of time, and a night at the Longmires’ isn’t how I’d like to spend, you know . . . my sand.” “It’s cool, we get it,” says Alan, standing over my desk, tapping the stack of facedown papers. “Award-winning writer such as yourself—might be uncouth to show your face at a lowly high school party.” Last year, AP English, Mr. Tuttle instructed us to write a “concise history,” wherein we explored something specific from our own lives that intersected with a piece of world history. A vague assignment, maybe, but I latched on to it, and when it was over, I didn’t let go, just kept writing all these historical vignettes. Eventually, I combined what I had into a single project entitled “A Concise History of Me” and entered it into a national contest hosted by the New Voices Teen Lit Journal. I didn’t tell anyone, because of course I wouldn’t win. And then I won. “You’re becoming a hermit,” says Val. “You know that, right?” “I am not.” “You never go out.” “I go out.” “The Rosa-Haas pool doesn’t count, No.” “I go . . . other places.” “What other places?” “I don’t know,” I say. “Places.” “You know Bowie died the same year as Prince and Muhammad Ali?” says Alan, holding my copy of David Bowie’s biography. “That shit always happens in threes.”

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“George Michael died that year too,” I say. “Oh. Fours, then.” “And I’d like to know what’s so bad about becoming a hermit,” I say. “Hermits get a bad rap, now that I think of it. All they want is to stay home and be left alone. What’s wrong with that?” Alan is all, “Hermits don’t get laid, bro.” At that exact moment, Mom pokes her head in the open doorway. “Who’s not getting laid?” “Mrs. O!” Alan rushes over for a hug. The two of them have this weird sort of connection where Alan flirts with her in exaggerated and inappropriate ways, and my mom pretends she doesn’t like it. She is fooling exactly no one. “I thought you guys were out hiking for the day,” says Alan. Mom, blushing like crazy: “Just Todd. He has this little posse that goes up to Starved Rock every few months, try to prove they haven’t aged.” Alan gives Mom—my mother, understand, the one who brought me into this world and has repeatedly threatened to take me out of it—an exaggerated up-and-down, a look only he can get away with. “Well, I don’t know about your husband, Mrs. O, but I think you’re aging backward.” Val says, “Okay, Alan.” “Seriously, we may have a Benjamin Button situation on our hands here.” “That’s enough now.” “Noah, tell me your mom isn’t smoking hot.” “Alan, God.” “I’m sorry, Mrs. Oakman,” says Val. “My brother was dropped on his head many, many times as a child.” Alan winks at my mom, gives her that winning Rosa-Haas

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smile. “Don’t listen to her, Mrs. O. You’re looking good today. Extra crispy.” “Well, I’m not sure what that means,” says Mom, just eating it up, totally pretending this isn’t exactly why she came in the room to begin with. Actually . . . “Mom, you need something?” I can tell she wants to ask about Coach Stevens’s voicemail but is unsure whether to bring it up around Alan and Val. “I just wanted to see if you guys wanted . . . some snacks or something.” “Some snacks?” She nods. “Or something.” “We’re not seven, Mom.” “Neither am I,” she says, “and I love snacks.” “You got any Cheetos?” asks Alan. Mom scrunches her nose. “Rice cakes?” I jump in before Alan can pretend he loves rice cakes. “Thank you, Mom. We’re good, though.” After Mom leaves, I scroll to an old Radiohead playlist. Val sets the laptop on the floor, lies down on the opposite end of the bed so we’re foot to head, and then Alan flops next to me, and the three of us stare up at the ceiling, listening to music. Sometimes simple things and complicated things are the same things, and the three of us moving as one, listening to music in the same bed is like that, intimacy dialed into some strange underground frequency. “Think of Iverton as a stage,” Val says, almost in a whisper. “The show is almost over, and this party is our final bow.” “Rather dramatic of you,” I say. “Plus, senior year hasn’t even started. Plus plus, who says we’ll be separated after high school?”

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Alan has his eye on DePaul’s animation program; Val, with her ever-expanding photography portfolio, has talked about the School of the Art Institute of Chicago the way Rory Gilmore talked about Harvard. Recent frustrations aside, the knowledge that my best friends aren’t moving across the country next year is hugely comforting. “Any word on scholarships?” asks Val. I could tell them about the voicemail, but I know what they’d say. The only people more excited than my parents about the potential of my attending Milwaukee next year are Val and Alan. Assuming they land at DePaul and SAIC, the quick drive to UM would keep the triangle intact. But there are other ways to make that happen. “Maybe I’ll just get a job in the city,” I say, ignoring Val’s question. “Do the whole college thing later.” “Noah.” “Val.” “Be serious.” “I am.” “What would you even do?” “The world is wide, Val. I’m sure there are plenty of opportunities for a strapping young lad such as myself.” “You say that, but you know you’d end up at Starbucks.” Alan says, “I hear they have great benefits,” to which Val sticks her foot in his face. He swats it away, and for a second we just lie there listening to “Everything in Its Right Place,” which I often think of as my own personal anthem: the unadorned walls, the alphabetized bookshelves, everything white or pastel, my desk with its perfectly angled stacks of paper, and I say, “You know what it is?” “What,” says Val.

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I remember when Penny was younger, but growing fast, there were times I’d see this idea dawn on her that she wouldn’t always be a kid, and in those moments she regressed—she’d talk like a baby or cling to my mom in ways she’d long since abandoned. The further away I felt from my friends, the stronger the urge to draw them in. “I love you guys.” I wrap one arm around Alan’s neck, the other around Val’s ankles. “I love you guys, and I love our summer, and I just—don’t want to be with other people right now.” The song ends and a different one begins, “Daydreaming,” which is the kind of song that seeps melancholy into the air like a sinking oil tanker. Val sits up, claps her hands. “Okay, boys. We’re not spending the entire day in this sterilized bedroom, listening to sad bastard music like . . .” “Sad bastards?” says Alan. “Exactly. We are not sad bastards. We are young and vigorous and thirsty, and we have, you know . . .” “Thirst?” “Unquenchable thirst is what I’m saying. Luckily, I know just the party for kids like us.” I grab my laptop off the floor, plop it back onto my chest, and pick up where I left off with Gilmore Girls. “You can’t make me go.” Val leans over, positions her head so her eyes barely peek over the top of the screen. “Noah.” “I have rights.” “It would be a pity if I accidentally ruined the ending for you.”

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I look up a few inches, slowly meet Val’s gaze. “You wouldn’t.” If eyebrows could shrug, Val’s just did. “You’ll never guess who runs off to California.” “Not funny.” “Or who gets married on a cruise ship.” “You actually think I’d go to some dumb party to avoid Gilmore Girls spoilers?” “Or who doesn’t get into Harvard.”

7 o I go to some dumb party

Will and Jake Longmire fell out of the douche tree and hit every nozzle on the way down. Also, and not entirely unrelated, they’re really good-looking, but in the same way Lochte or the Hemsworth brothers might be called good-looking, by which I mean, when one sees them, one senses the overwhelming urge to punch them in the face. And I’d feel bad thinking it, only I’ve seen the way they treat their girlfriends, and I’ve heard the “jokes” they toss at Alan, so I don’t punch them, but I’m fine with wanting to. The Longmire house sits a solid football field off the curb, and if there’s one residence in Iverton that stands out as bigger, flashier, more Ivertonian than all the rest, it’s theirs. Val parks her black BMW between two other BMWs, and the three of

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G. P. Putnam’s Sons an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC 375 Hudson Street New York, NY 10014

Copyright © 2018 by Renée Ahdieh. Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader. G. P. Putnam’s Sons is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Ahdieh, Renée, author. Title: Smoke in the sun / Renée Ahdieh. Description: New York, NY : G. P. Putnam’s Sons, [2018] | Sequel to: Flame in the mist. Summary: “Mariko must uncover deception in the imperial court and rescue Ōkami, while preparing for her nuptials”—Provided by publisher. Identifiers: LCCN 2018007928 | ISBN 9781524738143 (hardback) | ISBN 9781524738150 (ebook) Subjects: | CYAC: Courts and courtiers—Fiction. | Sex role—Fiction. | Brothers and sisters—Fiction. | Weddings—Fiction. | Samurai—Fiction. | Conduct of life—Fiction. | Japan—History—Tokugawa period, 1600–1868—Fiction. Classification: LCC PZ7.1.A328 Smo 2018 | DDC [Fic]—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018007928 Printed in the United States of America. ISBN 9781524738143 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Design by Eileen Savage. Text set in Apollo MT Pro. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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As swift as the wind

As silent as the forest

As fierce as the fire

As unshakable as the mountain

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“Truth is not what you want it to be; it is what it is. And you must bend to its power or live a lie.” —Miyamoto Musashi

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A Good Death

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omber clouds waited above, like specters. Most of the people had donned funereal grey. Their

heads were lowered in respect, their voices hushed. Even the smallest of children knew better than to ask why. This was the honor afforded their recently deceased emperor. The honor of their extreme reverence and their unwavering love. A reverence—a love—the girl did not feel in her heart. Nevertheless, she kept silent. Appeared to follow suit, though her hands were balled at her sides. She watched from the corner of her eye as the funeral procession wound through the muted streets of Inako. As a light rain began to fall from a dreary silver sky. Her woven sandals soon became wet. The fabric of her plain trousers clutched at her calves. Her left fist tightened around the rock in her hand.

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The drums marching out the processional beat drew closer, their low thunder reverberating in her ears. The reedy melody of the hichiriki split through the rising din of the rain. When the imperial guards posted along the lane turned their gazes toward the crowd, the people bowed with haste, afraid they might be disciplined for any slight, however small. Those in the girl’s vicinity bowed lower as the spirit tablet leading the procession shifted into view. Tendrils of smoke from the agarwood incense suffused the air with the scent of burning cedar and warm sandalwood. Etched on the tablet’s stone surface were the names of many past emperors—the deceased heavenly sovereigns of the Minamoto clan. The girl did not bow. She kept her eyes lifted. Locked on the spirit tablet. If she was caught, it would be tantamount to a death sentence. It would be the height of disrespect—a stain of dis­-​honor on her family and all those who followed in their footsteps. But honor had never held much weight for her. Especially not in the face of injustice. For a final time, the girl clenched her fingers around the rock. Rubbed the sweat from her palm into its roughened surface. Took aim. And launched it at the spirit tablet. It struck the center of the grey stone with a sharp crack. A stunned silence descended upon the crowd as those bearing the tablet swayed for a suspended moment. They watched in horror when the tablet crashed to the dirt in several pieces. 2

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A single cry of outrage bled into many. Though there was no love lost between the fallen emperor and the people of the Iwakura ward, this act was an affront to the gods themselves. The samurai guarding the procession reared their horses and charged into the crowd. A collective stammer arose from the people, much like the drone of a beehive on the cusp of exploding. Trembling fingers pointed in all directions, stabbing accusations anywhere and everywhere. But the girl was already on the move. She lunged into the shadows behind a small apothecary shop. Her hands shook from the energy pulsing beneath her skin as she yanked a mask above the lower portion of her face. Then the girl grabbed the edge of a pine eave and braced her foot against a stained plaster wall. With lightning precision, she vaulted onto the tiled rooftop. The shouts from below grew louder. “There he is.” “That’s the one who threw the rock.” “That boy over there!” The girl almost smiled to herself. But she did not have time for the luxury of emotion. With fleet-footed steps, she raced toward the ridgeline of the roof, then slid down the sloping tile on the other side. The pounding of hooves to her right drove the girl toward the rooftop at her left. She leapt over the yawning space between the two structures and tucked her body into a roll. Even with these cautionary measures, a painful shudder rippled from her heels up her spine. As she flew across the curved tiles—using the arches of 3

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her feet to grip their damp surface—an arrow hissed by her ear. Like a cascade of water, the girl slid to the roof’s edge and dropped into the shadows below. A quick beat was spent in contemplation. Her chest heaved as she took in one breath. Then two. She needed to get more distance. Blinking back the rain, the girl darted into an alleyway, skirting a discarded cabbage cart in the process. A sudden rush of footfall rose from her left. “There he is.” “Over by the alley next to the forge!” Her heartbeat crashed through her ears as she tore around the corner, the clatter of footsteps drawing closer. There was no place to hide, save for a rain barrel propped against a wall of the dilapidated forge. She would be caught if she lingered for even a moment longer. Her eyes darting to the four corners of the earth, the girl made a quick decision. As nimble as a cat, she levered her back against a wooden post and kicked upward once, twice. Her body quaking from the effort, she wedged a foot into the crook of a support beam. Then the girl flipped over, pressing her shoulders into the rough straw of the roof’s underbelly. Her sight blurred from fear as a soldier came into view just beneath her. If he looked up, all would be undone. The soldier glanced around before shoving his sandaled foot against the rain barrel. It tumbled aside with a thud, the rain within it joining the mud in a delayed splash. Frustration forced a huff of air past the soldier’s lips.

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Close by, an unintelligible shout of fury rang out into the sky. As the soldier’s ire grew, the girl squeezed her body tight, the effort straining her core. She was lucky the training she undertook daily had honed her limbs into such lithe lines. Had made her aware of every muscle, every gesture. She held her breath, locking her fingers and feet into place. The soldier kicked the barrel a final time before racing back into the streets. After several moments had passed, the girl finally allowed herself to relax. Permitted her body to seek a more comfortable position. She stayed hovering in the shadows until the sounds of tumult melted into the pounding rain. Then—with deliberate care—she reached for the wooden post and let her feet sink into the muck with a muffled thud. The girl straightened, removing the mask from her face. As she turned to leave, the door leading to the enclosed portion of the forge slid open. Startled by the sound, the girl let the mask fall from her hand into the mud. Before her stood a woman with greying temples and an unforgiving stare. Though the girl’s features remained expressionless, her heartbeat faltered in her chest. The woman would be near her mother’s age, if the girl had to guess. If she shouted a single word, the girl would be caught. Fear keeping her immobile, the girl stayed silent as the woman inhaled slowly, her eyes narrowing in understanding.

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Then she jerked her chin to the left, directing the girl to flee. Bowing with gratitude, the girl vanished into the rain. She doubled back countless times as she wove through the rain-slicked streets of the Iwakura ward, ensuring no one could follow her footsteps. When she neared an arched stone bridge—crossing into a grove of snow-white dogwood and pale pink cherry trees—her gait took on a different cadence. Her shoulders dropped, and her neck lengthened. It was automatic, the moment the scent of night-blooming jasmine curled into her nostrils. Still she did not use any of the main thoroughfares, save for the bridge itself. Concealed beneath a shower of dying petals, she hailed a jinrikisha and settled under its worn canvas canopy. Her eyes shuddered closed, and her lips parted as they silently counted each of her breaths. Ichi. Ni. San. Shi. Then the girl lifted her chin. With deft motions, she restored her disheveled clothing until nothing appeared amiss. Reformed the topknot at the crown of her head into an elegant coif. Like the gifted quick-change artist she’d been trained to be, the girl transformed from a daring boy into a demure mystery. When she finally arrived at the teahouse gate, she knocked twice, pausing for a beat before rapping her fist five more times in quick succession. A shuffle of feet and a

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series of whispers emanated from beyond the gate door before it swung open. Though these servants knew to unlatch the door at this series of knocks, no one was there to meet the girl, as she’d expressly requested. So none of them would ever be forced to lie about having seen her. The girl’s misfortunes were not worth the lives of all the young women here, and the cost of asking them to harbor her secrets was far too great. She made her way across the polished stones of the garden, past the burbling brook and its three miniature waterfalls, into a music of tinkling laughter and lilting shamisen. Then she floated by the elegant bonsai garden to walk behind the teahouse itself, toward a smaller structure nearby. Outside an intricately carved sliding door, her trusted maidservant, Kirin, stood waiting, a carafe of clean water in her hands. Kirin bowed. The girl returned the gesture. As the girl removed her sandals, the freckled maid– servant pushed open the silk-screened sliding door leading into a chamber flanked by two large tansu chests crafted of red cedar and black iron. The girl stepped over the raised threshold and took a seat before a polished silver surface positioned behind rows of dainty cosmetics and glass vials. She stared at her reflection. At the elegant lines of her face. The ones that concealed her so well within these walls. “Would you care to have a bath drawn?” Kirin asked. “Yes, please,” the girl replied without looking away. The maidservant bowed once more. Turned to leave.

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“Kirin?” The girl swiveled in place. “Has anything been delivered to the okiya in my absence?” “I’m sorry.” Kirin shook her head. “But no messages have come for you today, Yumi-sama.” Asano Yumi nodded. Returned her gaze to her mirror. Her brother, Tsuneoki. would seek her out soon. She was certain of it. Following Ōkami’s surrender in the forest three days ago, she and Tsuneoki could no longer afford to remain idle, darting between shadows, leaving whispers in their wake. Nor could they continue to allow their painful past to direct the course of their future. It was true Yumi’s elder brother had hurt her. Deeply. With his lies about who he was. With his blind insistence that he alone possessed the answers. That he alone made the choices. Though his choices left Yumi alone and apart, always. Years ago, Tsuneoki’s negligence had driven Yumi to scale the walls of her perfumed prison and take flight across the curved tiles. Her brother’s stubborn conceit had given her wings. And with them, she would fly, anywhere and everywhere. Absentmindedly, Yumi toyed with the alabaster lid of a jar filled with beeswax and crushed rose petals. Her brother wore his smiles like she wore these paints. A grinning mask, concealing fury and heartbreak. Their mother used to say they should be careful of the masks they chose to wear. For one day, those masks could become their faces. At this warning, Tsuneoki would often cross his eyes and slide his tongue between his bared teeth, like a snake. Yumi 8

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would double over with laughter at the sight. When they were young, her brother had always made her laugh. Always made her believe. Before the day it all ended, like a flame being doused in the wind. The lid clattered off the top of the cosmetics jar, startling Yumi from her thoughts. She met her gaze in the mirror. Blinked back the suggestion of tears. Set her jaw. It was time for the Asano clan to mete out their justice. A justice ten years in the making. Yumi thought again of the rock she’d held in her hand. Though the incident had occurred only this morning, it felt like a world away. She recalled the cries of outrage emanating from the crowd. They saw her actions as foolish. But they were afraid, and they’d built their lives upon this fear. It was time to dismantle it from within. Strike it down at its very foundation. So Yumi had begun with a rock. The sound it had made as it struck the emperor’s spirit tablet reverberated through her ears. The first of many battle cries to come. She could still feel the grit on her palm. It was time for the Asano clan to restore justice to the Empire of Wa. Or die trying.

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A Mask of Mercy

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utside a ramshackle forge in the Iwakura ward, a patrolling foot soldier came across a black mask half buried

in the mud. Rage clouded his vision. A rage quickly consumed by fear. He’d searched here earlier. The evidence of his efforts—an overturned rain barrel—mocked him as it sank deeper into the mud with each passing moment. If anyone discovered that he’d allowed the boy wearing the mask to escape, the soldier would be punished. Swiftly and surely. He moved to tuck the mask into his sleeve just as signs of motion caught his eye. A lantern blinked to life behind a dirty rice-paper screen near the back of the forge. The soldier’s gaze narrowed. In four steps, he smashed his foot through the fragile wood-and-paper door. A woman with a small child sat at a table, poring over a scroll of wrinkled parchment. Teaching her son to read. She

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appeared careworn and overtired, and the young boy kneeling before the low table had eyes that shone like oiled pewter. Without hesitation, the woman stepped before her son, positioning her body as a shield. She glanced at the muddy mask in the soldier’s hand, her downturned eyes widening briefly, but distinctly. It was not an expression of surprise. But rather one of understanding. One of recognition. That moment of clarity made the soldier’s next decision for him. It would not do for anyone to discover he had allowed the boy wearing the mask—the traitor who had dared to throw a stone at the emperor’s funeral procession—to escape. With a slash of his sword, the soldier eliminated the cause of his concern. Silenced the woman’s voice in a single stroke. As the boy watched his mother crumple lifeless to the packed earth floor, he began to tremble, his pewter eyes pooling with tears. Uncertainty gripped the soldier for the space of a breath. No. It would not do for him to take this young life as well. A young life that could one day serve the cause of their divine emperor perhaps even better than he. So the soldier lifted a finger to his lips. Smiled with benevolence. A mercy that melted away the last remaining traces of guilt. Then he ruffled the boy’s hair and flicked the blood from his blade before leaving the way he came. As he crossed into the deepening darkness beyond the old forge, the soldier raised his chin. The clouds churned above, causing his stomach to knot as if he were in battle. Perhaps 11

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it would be wise for him to send someone to check in on the boy at the forge later. Another woman, perhaps. Someone . . . A frown settled on his face. No. The boy was not his responsibility. When the soldier had been the boy’s age, he had been able to care for himself and his two younger sisters. The boy undoubtedly had family of his own. After all, that forge was not manned by his mother. Imagine! A woman working an anvil. Stoking a bellows. Shaping a sword! The soldier laughed under his breath. The soft rasp grew louder as the knot in his stomach pulled tight. As a low hum began droning through his eardrums. His laughter became a cough. A cough that stole his breath. The soldier bent at the waist, bracing his palms on his knees. He began to shake as he struggled to take in air. A trembling seized his body until it gripped him at his core. The hum rose through the space around him, keening in his ears. Forcing him to the ground. The last thing he remembered was a mask caked in dark mud. Beside an overturned rain barrel, a fox with yellow eyes watched a foot soldier collapse in the streets of the Iwakura ward and writhe through the mud with a soundless scream. It grinned slowly. Knowingly. Its sinister task complete. Its dark magic weaving above the earth. Then it vanished in a twist of smoke. 12

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Tall and Proud and Hapless

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his was a scene from a story she’d heard before. A young woman in her rightful place, ensconced at

the Golden Castle. Betrothed to the son of the emperor’s favorite consort. Bestowing honor on the Hattori name. The scented water in the wooden furo felt the same as it did at home. Like heated silk sliding across her skin. The hands scrubbing at Mariko’s arms and shoulders did so in much the same way they’d done at home—without mercy, until her pale skin shone like that of a newborn child, pink and raw and perfect. A servant with permanent lines of judgment marring her brow yanked a comb inlaid with motherof-pearl through Mariko’s hair in much the same way her nursemaid had when she was younger. It all felt so similar. But if Mariko could be certain of nothing else now, she could be certain her life would never be the same again.

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Under her brother’s watchful care, they’d arrived in Inako late last night. To an imperial city cloaked in mourning. To streets teeming with whispers. Today was the funeral of their emperor, who had died suddenly, beneath a veil of suspicion. Upon discovering his body, the empress’s wailing was said to have been heard across all seven maru. Even beyond the castle’s iron-and-gold-plated double gates. She’d screamed murder. Raged at all those nearby, accusing them of treachery. It had taken a flock of maidservants to soothe her and begin ushering her toward her tears. Toward final whimpers of resignation. But beneath this hushed intensity seethed something sinister. Last night—when the second pair of gates leading to the castle had creaked closed behind their convoy—the air around Mariko had stilled. The faint breeze blowing past the woven screen of her norimono had sighed a final sigh. An owl had blared across the firmament, its cry ringing off the stone walls. As though in warning. Here in Inako, Mariko would not be granted a moment’s respite. Nor did she wish for one. She would not allow herself anything of the sort. For deep in the bowels of the same castle, the last in a line of celebrated shōgun awaited his impending doom: the final judgment of the imperial city. And the lies this city wore— lies cloaked in silk and steel—shimmered beneath the surface, ready to take shape. No matter the cost, Mariko would mold them into what they should have been from the start: 14

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The truth. She bit down hard on nothing. Braced herself for the coming fight. It would be unlike any Ōkami and the Black Clan had prepaired her for in Jukai forest. In this fight, she would not have weapons of wood and metal and smoke at her disposal. She would instead be armed with nothing more than her mind and her own mettle. This would be precisely the kind of fight she’d unknowingly prepared for as a child, when she’d pitted herself against her brother, Kenshin. In a game of wits against brawn. Here in Inako, Mariko’s armor would not be hardened leather and an ornamented helmet. It would be perfume and powdered skin. She had to persuade Prince Raiden—her betrothed—to trust her. She needed him to cast her as the hapless victim instead of the willing villain. Though I plan to be a villain in all ways. If it took everything from Hattori Mariko—even her very life—she would not allow those she loved to fall prey to those set on destroying them. She would learn the truth about who had conspired to kill her that day in the forest. Why they attempted to frame the Black Clan for the deed. And what deeper cause lay beneath their designs. Even if those at the heart of the matter were the imperial family itself. Even if her own family might fall into the crosshairs. The thought sent a chill through her bones, as though the water in the furo had suddenly turned to ice. Kenshin’s choice had been made long before he’d marched 15

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into Jukai forest flying their family crest alongside that of the emperor. Even before he’d let soldiers loose arrows around his only sister in a shower of fire and ash. He was a samurai, and a samurai followed the orders of his sovereign, to the death. He did not ask questions. His pledge was one of unswerving conviction. But Mariko’s time with the Black Clan had taught her the cost of blind faith. She refused to align the Hattori name with that of the shiftless nobles in the imperial city. The same nobles intent on lining their pockets and gaining influence at the expense of the downtrodden. The same people they’d sworn to protect, like the elder woman who cared for the children in the Iwakura ward, who depended upon Ōkami and the Black Clan for support. Protect. Mariko drew her knees to her chest, shielding her heart, preventing the worst of her thoughts from taking root. What if Ōkami is already dead? She tightened the grip on her knees. No. He isn’t dead. He can’t be. They will want to make a show of his death. And I will be there to protect him when they do. It was strange to think Mariko possessed the power to protect someone she loved. She’d never known the right words to do so before. Never known how to wield the right weapons. But ingenuity could be a weapon, in all its forms. Her mind could be a sword. Her voice could be an axe.

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Her fury could ignite a fire. Protect. Mariko would never allow Ōkami—the boy who had stolen her heart in the dead of the night, deep within a forest of rustling trees—to lose all he’d fought to regain. Nor would Mariko allow herself to lose anything she loved. She’d watched from the shadows as Kenshin had permitted soldiers to descend on her in Jukai forest. Felt the pang of her brother’s betrayal with each of his questioning glances. She’d bitten her tongue as these same soldiers had forced Ōkami to kneel in the mud and surrender. As they’d taunted and derided him from their lofty perches. Mariko swallowed, the bitterness coating her throat. Never again. I will protect you, no matter the cost. “Look at your nails.” The creases across the servant’s brow deepened as she spoke, cutting through Mariko’s deliberations. Her admonition conjured more memories of Mariko’s childhood. “It’s as though you’ve been digging through mud and stone all your life.” She tsked, inspecting Mariko’s fingers even further. “Are these the hands of a lady or a scullery maid?” Mariko’s sight blurred as she gazed at her scarred knuckles. Another pair of hands took shape in her mind’s eye, its calloused fingers intertwined with hers. Laced together. Stronger for it. Ōkami. Mariko blinked. Organized the chaos of her thoughts into

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something coherent. She bit her lip and widened her eyes. “The Black Clan . . . they made me work for them.” Her voice sounded small. Insignificant. Exactly as she intended. The servant chuffed in response, her expression still dubious. “It will take the work of an enchantress to repair this damage.” Her words remained harsh, unmoved by the sight of Mariko’s feigned timidity. Strangely—though this woman’s rebuke was in no way comforting—it nevertheless warmed Mariko. It brought to mind her mother’s quiet, ever-present judgment. No. Not just that. The servant reminded her of Yoshi. At the thought of the grumbling, good-natured cook, Mariko’s eyes began to water in earnest. The servant watched her, an eyebrow peaking into her forehead. That time, the sight of the older woman’s judgment spurred a different reaction. Anger roiled beneath Mariko’s skin. She snatched her hand away and averted her gaze, as though she were afraid. Ashamed. The servant’s stern expression lost some of its severity. As though Mariko’s embarrassment was an emotion she could understand and accept. When she next took hold of Mariko’s hand, her touch was careful. Almost soft. In the same instant Mariko fought to curb her anger, she paused to take note. My fear—even when it is feigned—has more weight when it is matched alongside anger. 18

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One of the young women assisting the gruff servant bowed beside the wooden tub before lifting a pile of muddied, fraying clothing into the light. “My lady, may I dispose of these?” Her round face and button nose squinched in disgust. They were the garments Mariko had worn in Jukai forest, when she’d been disguised as a boy. She’d refused to discard the faded grey kosode and trousers, even at Kenshin’s behest. They were all she had now. Her eyes widening in what she hoped to be a sorrowful expression, Mariko shook her head. “Please have them washed and stored nearby. Though I long more than anything to forget what happened to me, it is important to keep at least one reminder of the consequences when a wrong turn is taken in life.” The ill-tempered elder servant harrumphed at her words. Another young girl in attendance grasped one of Mariko’s hands and began scrubbing beneath her nails with a brush fashioned from horsehair bristles. As she worked, the servant with the round face and button nose poured fine emollients and fresh flower petals across the surface of the steaming water. The colors of the oil shimmered around Mariko like fading rainbows. A petal caught on the inside of her knee. She dipped her leg beneath the water and watched the petal float away. The image reminded her of what the old man at the watering hole had said the night she’d first met the Black Clan, disguised as a boy. He’d told her she had a great deal of water in her personality. Mariko had been quick to disagree with him. Water was far too fluid and changeable. Her mother had 19

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always said Mariko was like earth—stubborn and straight­ forward to a fault. I need to be water now, more than ever. Mariko wondered what had become of the Black Clan after Ōkami had surrendered to her betrothed. Wondered how Yoshi and Haruki and Ren and all the others had fared following such a dire blow. Only three nights past, they’d learned their leader had been deceiving them for years. He was not in fact the son of Takeda Shingen. The boy they’d followed and called Ranmaru for almost a decade was instead the son of Asano Naganori. He’d assumed the role of Takeda Ranmaru to protect his best friend and make amends for his father’s betrayal—a betrayal that had resulted in the destruction of both their families. This boy’s real name was Asano Tsuneoki. They’d all been deceived. And Mariko’s betrothed—Prince Raiden—had left the forest with a prize worthy of laying at his father’s burial mound. The true son of Takeda Shingen, the last shōgun of Wa: Ōkami. Resentment smoldered hot and fast in Mariko’s chest. Guilt coiled through her stomach. She dared to sit in a pool of scented water, allowing her skin and hair to be brushed and polished to perfection while so many of those she cared about suffered untold fates? She took a steadying breath. This was necessary. This was the reason she’d asked Kenshin to bring her to Inako. If Mariko intended to act on 20

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the plans she’d formulated while journeying from Jukai forest to the imperial city, she had to be in the seat of power. Mariko had to find a way to free Ōkami. She had to convince her betrothed that she was the willing, simpering young woman he surely desired in a bride. Then—once she’d earned a measure of trust—she could find a way to begin feeding information to the outside. To those who fought to change the ways of the imperial city and restore justice to its people. To topple evil from its vaunted pedestal. “Stand,” the servant demanded in a curt tone. Respect for an elder—regardless of status—drove Mariko to obey the truculent woman without question. She let the woman lead her to the largest piece of polished silver she’d ever seen in her life. Her eyes widened at the sight of her naked body reflected back at her. Her time in Jukai forest had changed Mariko on the outside as well. The angles of her face were more pronounced. She was thinner. What had been willowy before was now honed. Muscles she’d not known she’d possessed moved as she moved, like ripples across a pond. She was stronger now, in more ways than one. The elderly servant tsked again. “You’re as thin as a reed. No young man will want to caress skin and bones, least of all one like Prince Raiden.” Again the urge to react rose in Mariko’s throat. Though she could not really discern the reason for the woman’s distain, she suspected the servant believed a girl who lived among bandits did not deserve to marry into the imperial family. Did 21

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not merit the attention of a prince. The truth blazed bright within her. She was more than an object of any man’s desire. But on this particular score, the servant was right. She did need to eat if she intended to play the part. Be water. Mariko smiled through gritted teeth. Let her lips waver as though she were exhausted. Weak. “You’re right. Please do whatever you can—whatever magic you possess—to restore me to my past self. To the sort of young woman who might please the prince. I want nothing more than to forget what happened to me.” She struggled to stand taller. Fought to look proud. Though the creases on her features deepened, the servant nodded. “My name is Shizuko. If you do as I say, it is possible we can remedy the effects of this . . . misfortune.” Mariko slid her arms into the proffered silken under­ garment. “Make me fit for a prince, Shizuko.” Shizuko sniffed and cleared her throat before directing the other servant girls to come forward. In their arms were bolts of lustrous fabric. Piles of brocade and painted silk, wrapped in sheets of translucent paper. Trays of jade and silver and tortoiseshell hairpieces. Mariko ran the tip of a finger down the needled point of a silver hairpiece. Recalled one of the last times she had held one in her hand. The night she’d pierced it through a man’s eye for attacking her.

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Mariko knew what she needed to do. For the sake of those she held dear, she needed to appear tall and proud. And hapless. She spoke in a near whisper, as though her words were nothing but an afterthought. “The imperial family will need me to appear strong, just as they are.� Just as they will need to be. Because Hattori Mariko had a plan. And this unwitting woman had already provided her with the first piece of the puzzle.

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VIKING An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC 375 Hudson Street New York, New York 10014

First published in the United States of America by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018 Text copyright © 2018 by Half Bad Books Limited Map and chapter illustrations by Alexis Snell Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader. L I B R A RY OF C ONGR E S S C ATA LO GI NG - I N - PU B L IC AT ION DATA I S AVA I L A B L E .

ISBN 9780425290217 Printed in U.S.A. Set in Fournier MT Book design by Nancy Brennan

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W It is illegal to buy, trade in, procure, obtain by any means, inhale, swallow, or use in any fashion the smoke from demons. Laws of Pitoria, V. 1, C. 43.1

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TASH

NORTHERN PLATEAU, PITORIA

“EVERYTHING READY?” “No. This is a figment of your imagination and I’ve been sitting on my arse all day eating honey.” Tash was adjusting the rope so its knotted end was a hand’s breadth above the bottom of the pit. “A bit lower,” Gravell said. “I’m not blind!” “You need to check it.” Tash turned on Gravell, “I know what I need to do!” Gravell always got serious and pernickety at this stage and it only now occurred to Tash that it was because he was scared. Tash was scared too, but it didn’t help to think that Gravell wasn’t far off shitting in his pants as well. “Not nervous, are you?” she asked. Gravell muttered, “Why should I be nervous? You’re the one it’ll catch first. By the time it’s done with you I’ll be long gone.” It was true, of course. Tash was the bait. She lured the demon into the trap and Gravell finished it off.

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Tash was thirteen and had been demon bait since Gravell bought her from her family four years ago. He’d turned up one sunny day, the hugest, hairiest man she’d ever seen, saying he’d heard that they had a girl who was a fast runner, and told her he’d give her five kopeks if she could run to the trees before the harpoon he threw hit the ground. Tash thought it must be a trick—no one would pay just to see her run, and five kopeks was a huge sum—but she did it anyway, mostly to show off that she could. She wasn’t sure what she’d do with the money—she’d never had more than a kopek before and she’d have to hide it before her brothers took it off her. But she needn’t have worried; she left with Gravell that afternoon. Gravell gave her father ten kroners for her, he told her later. “A bit pricey,” he teased. No wonder her father had been smiling when she’d left. Gravell was her family now, which was to Tash’s mind a lot better than the previous one. Gravell didn’t beat her, she was rarely hungry, and while she was sometimes cold, that was the nature of the work. And from the first day with Gravell she had been given boots. Yes, compared to her previous life, this one with Gravell was one of luxury and plenty. The money from selling demon smoke was good, although demons were rare and dangerous. The whole process of killing demons and selling smoke was illegal, but the sheriff’s men didn’t bother them if they were discreet. Gravell and Tash usually managed to catch four or five demons a season, and the money lasted the year and when they were in towns they stayed at inns, slept in beds, had baths, and, best of all, Tash had boots. Two pairs now!

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Tash loved her boots. Her ordinary everyday boots were of thick leather with sturdy soles. Those were good for walking and hiking, and didn’t rub or pinch. She had no blisters and the smell from them she considered to be a good smell, more leathery than the stale sweat that Gravell’s boots oozed. Tash’s second pair, the pair she was wearing now, Gravell bought for her when they were in Dornan a few months earlier. These were her running boots and they fitted perfectly. They had sharp metal spikes in the soles so she could grip hard and set off fast. Gravell had suggested them and come up with the design, and he’d even paid for them—two kroners, which was a lot for boots. As she put them on the first time he’d said, “Look after them and they’ll look after you.” Tash did look after them and she definitely, absolutely refused to be ungrateful, but what she wanted, what she coveted more than anything in the world, were the ankle boots she’d thought Gravell was going to give her when he told her he was treating her to something special. She’d seen the ankle boots in the window of the cobbler’s shop in Dornan and mentioned them a few times to him. They were the most beautiful, delicate, pale gray boots of suede, so soft and fine that they looked to be made from rabbit’s ears. When Gravell showed her the spiked boots and told her how he’d come up with the idea for them, she made a good job, she thought, of looking delighted. Tash told herself not to be disappointed. It would all work out. The spiked boots would help in this hunt and with the money from the demon kill she’d be able to buy the gray suede boots herself. And soon they’d have their first demon.

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Gravell found this demon’s lair after only a week. He’d dug the pit, though these days Tash set up and checked the escape mechanism and, in fact, wouldn’t let Gravell near it. Gravell had taught Tash to be careful, to double-check everything and she went through a test run now, walking back from the pit a hundred paces, then jogging through the trees, picking up speed where there was little snow on the ground and into the small clearing where the snow was deeper but where she’d trampled it down to compress it so that it had hardened to a crisp, going at full speed now, pumping her legs, leaning forward, her spikes giving her grip but not holding her back, and then she was leaping over the edge of the pit, hitting the icy floor with a crunch, absorbing the drop with her knees but immediately getting up and running to the end and . . . waiting. Waiting. That was the hardest part. That was the real shit-in-yourpants time, when your mind was screaming at you to grab the rope but you couldn’t because you have to wait for the demon to come down, and only when he was on the way down, just as he touched the bottom of the pit and screamed and screeched and slid toward you, could you grab the rope and release the pulley mechanism. Tash pulled on the rope, bearing down on it with all her weight, her right foot resting on the lowest, thickest knot. The wooden release gave and Tash flew upward, as natural and lazy as a yawn, so balanced that her fingers were barely touching the rope and at the apex of her flight she stopped, hanging in the air, totally free, then she let go of the rope,

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leaned forward and reached for the fir tree, arms out to hug the branches, holding for another second before casually sliding down. A pine cone scratched her face and she landed almost knee deep in the pile of snow she’d banked there. Tash walked back to reset the trap. Soil and footprints surrounded the pit; she’d have to clean the base of her boots to make sure they didn’t get clogged with dirt. “You’re bleeding.” Tash felt her cheek and looked at the blood on her fingertips. Demons got more excited when they smelled blood. She licked her fingers and said, “Let’s get on with it.” She grabbed the ropes and set the pulley back into place, satisfied that she’d done everything properly. The pulley was working smoothly. It was a good pit. Gravell had dug it over three days, making it long, thin and deep, and last night he and Tash had poured water down the steep sides until there was two hands” depth in the bottom, which had frozen nicely to a hard, smooth ice. It was still possible to climb out of the pit—demons were good at climbing—and Gravell had over the years tried different ways to get the walls covered with ice too but it had never been that successful. So they would do what Gravell had always done and paint the pit walls with a mix of animal’s blood and guts. It smelled strong and disgusting and was enough to distract and confuse the demon, giving Gravell time to throw his harpoons. Gravell had five long harpoons, though it usually only took three to finish the demon off. They were specially made, each with a metal tip and teeth so they couldn’t be pulled out. The demon would

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scream and screech. The noise was horrible and Tash always had to remind herself that the demon would gladly do worse to her if he—it—caught her. Tash looked up; the sun was still high in the sky. The demon hunt happened at the end of the day. She could feel her stomach begin to tighten with nerves now. She just wanted to get on with it. Gravell still had to coat the walls of the pit, then take cover in the nearby bushes and wait. Only when he saw the demon leap into the pit would he move forward, harpoons in hand. Timing was everything and they had it down to an art now, but it was Tash who risked her life, Tash who attracted the demon, Tash who had to know when to start running to draw the demon after her, Tash who had to outrun the demon, jump into the pit and, at the last possible moment, grab the rope and be hoisted out. True, the demon could avoid the pit and attack Gravell. This had happened only once in their four years of demon hunting together. Tash wasn’t sure what had happened that day and Gravell didn’t talk about it. She’d leaped into the pit and waited, but no demon appeared. She’d heard Gravell shout; there was a high-pitched demon screech, and then silence. She hadn’t known what to do. If the demon was dead, why wasn’t Gravell shouting for her to come out? Did the screech mean the demon was wounded? Or was it the screech it made as it attacked and killed Gravell? Was the demon silent now because it was feasting on Gravell’s body? Should she run while the demon was drinking Gravell’s blood? She’d waited and looked up at the sky above the pit walls and realized she wanted a piss. She’d wanted to cry too.

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She’d waited, holding on to the rope, but she was too terrified to move. Finally she’d heard something, a shuffling in the snow and Gravell shouted down: “Are you going to come out of there this year?” And Tash had tried to release the pulley but her hand was so cold and so shaky it took a while and Gravell was swearing at her by then. When she got out she was surprised to see that Gravell wasn’t wounded at all. He’d laughed when she crouched next to him, saying, “You’re not dead.” After he laughed he went quiet and then he’d said, “Fucking demons.” “Why didn’t it come into the pit?” “I don’t know. Maybe it saw me. Smelled me. Sensed something . . . whatever it is they do.” The demon was lying fifty paces from the pit with just one harpoon in its body. Had Gravell run or had the demon run? She had asked and all Gravell had said was, “We were both fucking running.” The other harpoons were speared into the ground at different points around them, as if Gravell had thrown them and missed. Gravell shook his head, saying, “Like trying to harpoon an angry wasp.” The demon wasn’t much bigger than Tash. It was very thin, all sinew and skin, no fat at all; it reminded Tash of her older brother. Its skin was more purple than the usual reds and burned oranges, the sunset colors of the bigger demons. Within twenty-four hours the body would rot and melt away, the smell strong and earthy for that time, and then it would be gone, not even leaving a stain on the ground. There was no blood; demons didn’t have blood. “Did you get the smoke?” Tash had asked.

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“No. I was a bit busy.” The smoke came out of the demon after it died. Tash wondered what Gravell had been busy doing, but she knew that he’d come close to death and saw that his hands were still trembling. She imagined that he must have killed the demon and tried to hold the bottle to catch the smoke but his hands had been shaking too much. “Was it beautiful?” “Very. Purple. Some red and a bit of orange to start but then all purple right through to the end.” “Purple!” Tash wished she’d seen it. They had nothing to show for all their work, weeks of tracking, and then the days of digging and preparation. Nothing to show except their lives and stories of the beauty of demon smoke. “Tell me more about the smoke, Gravell,” Tash had said. And Gravell told her how it had seeped out of the demon’s mouth—after the demon had stopped screeching. “Not much smoke this time,” Gravell added. “Small demon. Young maybe.” Tash had nodded. They’d lit a fire to get warm and in the morning they’d watched the demon’s body shrink and disappear, and then they set off to find another. Today’s demon was the first of the season. They didn’t hunt in winter, as it was too harsh, the snow too deep and the cold bitter. They’d come up to the Northern Plateau as soon as the deep snows began to melt, though this year spring had arrived but then winter returned for a few weeks and so there was still deep snow in the shade and in hollows. Gravell had found the demon’s lair and worked out the best place for the

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pit. Now Gravell lowered the pot of blood and guts into the pit and climbed down the ladder to paint the walls. Tash didn’t have to do this; Gravell had never asked her to—it was his job and he took pride in it. He wasn’t going to mess up weeks of work by failing to do this last task properly. Tash sat on her pack and waited. She wrapped a fur round herself and stared at the distant trees and tried not to think any more about demons and the pit, so she thought of afterward. They’d go to Dornan and sell the demon smoke there. Trade in smoke was illegal, anything to do with demons was illegal, even setting foot on demon territory was illegal, but that didn’t mean there weren’t a few people like her and Gravell who hunted them, and it certainly didn’t stop people wanting to buy the demon smoke. And once she had her share of the money she could buy her boots. Dornan was a week’s walk away, but the journey was easy and they’d enjoy warmth, rest and good food before returning to the plateau. Tash asked Gravell once why he didn’t collect more smoke and kill more demons, adding, “Southgate said Banyon and Yoden catch twice what we do each year.” But Gravell replied, “Demons is evil but so is greed. We’ve got enough.” And life was pretty good, as long as Tash kept running fast. Eventually Gravell climbed back out of the pit, pulled the ladder up and put everything out of sight. Tash moved her pack to the trees. With that done, there was nothing left to prepare. Gravell circled the pit a final time, muttering to himself, “Yep. Yep. Yep.” He came over to Tash and said, “Right then.”

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“Right then.” “Don’t fuck up, missy.” “Don’t you neither.” They knocked right fists together. The words and fist bump were a ritual they had for good luck, though Tash didn’t really believe in luck and was fairly sure Gravell didn’t either but she wasn’t going to go through a demon hunt without all possible assistance on her side. The sun was lower in the sky and soon the sun would be below the level of the trees, the time when it was best to lure the demon out. Tash jogged north, through thin woodland, to the clearing that she and Gravell had found ten days earlier. Well, Gravell had found it. That was his real skill. Digging pits and lining them with guts anyone could do, his knack for killing demons with harpoons was due to his size and strength, but what made Gravell very special was his patience, his instinctive ability to find the places demons lived. Demons liked shallow hollows on flat ground, not too close to trees, where mist collected. They liked the cold. They liked snow. They didn’t like people. Tash used to ask Gravell all about demons but now she probably knew as much as anyone could about something from a different place. And what a place it was. Not of this earth, she thought, or perhaps too much of this earth, of an ancient earth. Tash had seen into it, the demon land: that was what she had to do. To lure the demon out she had to venture in, where she was not allowed, where humans didn’t go. And the demons would kill her for daring to see their world, a

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world that was bruised and brooding. Not so much dark as a different type of light; the light was red and the shadows redder. There were no trees or plants, just red rock. The air was warmer, thicker, and then there were the sounds. Tash waited until the sun was halfway below the hill, the sky red and orange only in that small section. Mist was collecting in the gentle hollows. It was forming in her demon’s hollow too. This hollow was slightly deeper than the other dips and undulations around it, but unlike the rest this had no snow in it, and at this time of evening the mist could be seen to have a tinge of red, which perhaps could be due to the sunset, but Tash knew otherwise. Tash approached slowly and silently and knelt at the rim of the hollow. She reached back to clean the spikes on her boots with her fingers, pulling off a few small clumps of earth. She put her hands on the ground and spread her fingers, feeling the earth, which was not warm but was not frozen solid either—this was the edge of demon territory. She dug in her toes and took a breath as if she was about to submerge, which in a way she was. Tash lowered her head, and with eyes open she pushed her head forward, her chest brushing the ground, as if she was nosing under a curtain into the hollow: into the demon’s world. Sometimes it took two or three attempts, but today she was in first time. The demon land fell away before her, the hollow descending sharply to a tunnel, but that wasn’t the only thing that was different from the human world. Here, in the demon

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world, colors, sounds and temperatures were altered, as if she was looking through a colored glass into an oven. Describing the colors was hard, but describing the sounds was impossible. Tash looked across the red hollow to the opening of the tunnel, and there at the lowest point was something purple. A leg? Then she made sense of it and saw that he—it—was sprawled on its stomach, one leg sticking out. Tash worked out its torso, an arm and its head. Human-shaped but not human. Skin smooth and finely muscled, purple and red and streaks of orange, narrow and long. It looked young. Like a gangly teenager. Its stomach was moving slowly with each of its breaths. It was sleeping. Tash had been holding her own breath all this time and now she let out what air she had. Sometimes that’s all she needed to do; just her breath, her smell, would get the demon’s attention. This demon didn’t move. Tash took a breath in, the air hot and dry in her mouth. She shouted her shout: “I’m here, demon! I can see you!” But her voice did not sound the same here. Here, words were not words but a clanging of cymbals and gongs. The demon’s head lifted and slowly turned to face Tash. One leg moved, bending at the knee, the foot raising in the air, totally relaxed despite the intrusion. The demon’s eyes were purple. It stared at Tash and then blinked. Its leg was still in the air and was totally still. Then it threw its head

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back, lowered his leg, opened its mouth and stretched its neck to howl. A clanging noise hit Tash’s ears as the demon sprang up and forward, purple mouth open, but already Tash was springing up too, pushing her spikes hard into the ground and twisting round in the air in a leap that took her out of the demon world and back on to the lip of the hollow, back into the human world. And then she was running.

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CATHERINE BRIGANE, BRIGANT

There is no greater evil than that of a traitor. All traitors must be sought out, exposed and punished. The Laws and Devices of Brigant

“ BORIS HAS sent a guard to escort us there, Your Highness.” Jane, the new maid, looked and sounded terrified. “Don’t worry. You won’t have to watch.” Catherine smoothed her skirt and took a deep breath. She was ready. They set off: the guard ahead, Catherine in the middle and Jane at the rear. The corridors were quiet and empty in the queen’s part of the castle; even the guard’s heavy footsteps were hushed on the thick rugs. But entering the central hall was like crossing into a different world: a world full of men, color and noise. Catherine so rarely came into this world that she wanted to take it all in. The lords were in breastplates, with swords and daggers, as though they didn’t dare come to court without appearing their strongest. Numerous servants stood around and everyone seemed to be talking, looking, maneuvering. Catherine recognized no one, but the men recognized her and parted to allow her through, the noise quietening around her then building again as she passed.

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And then she was at another door, which the guard held open for her. “Prince Boris asked that you wait for him in here, Your Highness.” Catherine entered the ante hall, indicating with a wave of her hand that Jane should wait outside the door, which was already being closed. It was quiet, but Catherine could hear her own heart beating fast. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She told herself, Stay calm. Stay dignified. Act like a princess. She straightened her back and took another deep breath. Then paced slowly to the far end of the room. It’ll be ugly. It’ll be bloody. But. I won’t flinch. I won’t faint. I certainly won’t scream. And back again. I’ll be controlled. I won’t show any emotion. If it’s really bad I’ll think of something else. But what? Something beautiful? That would just be wrong. And back again. What do you think of when you watch someone having their head chopped off? And not just anyone but Amb– Catherine turned and there was Noyes, somehow in the corner of the room, leaning against the wall. Catherine rarely met Noyes but whenever she saw him she had to suppress a shudder. He was slim and athletic, probably the same age as her father. Today he was fashionably dressed in his leather and buckles, his shoulder-length, almost white hair tied back from his angular face in fine plaits and a simple knot. But for all that there was something unpleasant about him. Maybe it was just his reputation. Noyes,

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the master inquisitor, was in the business of seeking out and hunting down traitors. He didn’t kill prisoners himself for the most part; that was the job of his torturers and executioners. In the seven years since the war with Calidor, Noyes and his like had flourished, unlike most Brigantine businesses. No one was safe from his scrutiny: from stable lad to lord, from maid to lady, and even to princess. Noyes pushed off the wall with his shoulder, took a lazy step toward her, made a slow bow and said, “Good morning, Your Highness. Isn’t it a beautiful day?” “For you, I’m sure.” He smiled his half-smile and remained still, watching her. Catherine asked, “Are you waiting for Boris?” “I’m merely waiting, Your Highness.” They stood in silence. Catherine looked up at the high windows and the blue sky beyond. Noyes’s eyes were on her and she felt like a sheep at a market . . . no, more like an ugly bug that had crawled across his path. She had an urge to scream that he should show her some respect. She turned abruptly away from him and told herself, Stay calm. Stay calm. She was good at hiding her emotions after nearly seventeen years of practice, but recently it had become harder. Recently her emotions kept threatening to get the better of her. “Ah, you’re here, sister,” Boris called as he barged through the doors, Harold trailing in his wake. For once Catherine was relieved to see her brothers. She curtsied. Boris strode through the room, ignoring Noyes and not even bowing to Catherine. He didn’t come to a standstill, but car-

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ried on, saying, “Your maid stays here. You come with me.” He pushed open the double doors into the castle square, saying, “Come on, sister. Don’t dilly-dally.” Catherine hurried after Boris, the doors already swinging shut in her face. She pulled them open and was relieved that Boris had stopped, the scaffold ahead of them was almost blocking the way, as tall as the rose-garden wall. Boris snorted a laugh. “Father told them to make sure everyone gets a good view, but I swear they’ve cut down an acre of forest to build this.” “Well, I don’t know why she should get to see it. This isn’t for girls,” Harold said, hands on hips, legs apart, staring at Catherine. “And yet children are allowed to attend,” Catherine replied, imitating his stance. “I’m fourteen, sister.” Catherine walked past him, whispering, “In two months, little brother. But I won’t tell anyone.” Harold grumbled, “I’ll soon be bigger than you,” before pushing past her and stomping off after Boris. He looked particularly small and slight as he followed behind Boris’s broad frame. They were clearly brothers, their redblond hair exactly the same shade, though Harold’s was more intricately tied and it struck Catherine that he must have had someone spend more time on his hair than her maids had spent with hers. However, Harold’s opinion about the propriety of Catherine’s presence mattered as much as Catherine’s own. She had been ordered to attend the execution by her father, on the

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advice of Noyes. Catherine had to prove herself to them. Prove her strength and loyalty, and most importantly that she was no traitor in heart, mind or deed. Boris was already rounding the corner of the scaffold. Catherine hurried to catch up, lifting her long skirt so as not to trip. Although she couldn’t yet see the crowd, she could hear its low buzz. It was strange how you could sense a crowd, sense a mood. The men in the hall had been polite on the surface but there was a barely concealed lust: for power, for . . . anything. Here, there was a large crowd and a surprisingly good mood. A couple of shouts of “Boris” went up but they quickly died. This wasn’t Boris’s day. Boris turned and stared at Catherine as she joined him. “You want to show off your legs to the masses, sister?” Catherine dropped her skirt and smoothed the fabric, saying in her most repulsed voice, “The cobbles aren’t clean. This silk will be ruined.” “Better that than your reputation.” Boris held Catherine’s gaze. “I’m only thinking of you, sister.” He waved to his left, at the raised platform carpeted in royal red, and stated, “This is for us.” As if Catherine couldn’t work it out for herself. Boris led the way up the three steps. The royal enclosure was rather basic, with a single row of the wide, carved wooden stools Catherine recognized from the meeting hall. A thick red rope was strung loosely between short red and black posts that demarked the platform. The crowd was beyond the platform and it too was held back by rope (not red, but thick, coarse and brown) and a line of king’s guards

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(in red, black and gold, but also thick and coarse, Catherine assumed). Boris pointed at the seat closest to the far edge of the platform. “For you, sister.” He planted himself on the wide stool next to hers, his legs apart, a muscular thigh overlapping Catherine’s seat. She sat down, carefully arranging her skirt so that it wouldn’t crease and so that the pale, pink silk fell over Boris’s knee. He moved his leg away. Harold remained standing by the seat on the other side of Boris. “But Catherine gets the best view.” “That’s the point, squirt,” Boris replied. “But I have precedence over Catherine and I want to sit there.” “Well, I gave Catherine that seat. So you sit on this one here and shut up.” Harold hesitated for a second. He opened his mouth to complain again but caught Catherine’s eye. She smiled and made an elegant sewing sign in front of her lips. Harold glanced at Boris and had to clamp his lips together with his teeth, but he did remain quiet. Catherine surveyed the square. There was another platform opposite, on the other side of the scaffold, with some noblemen standing on it. She recognized Ambrose’s long blond hair and quickly looked away, wondering if she was blushing. Why did just a glimpse of him make her feel hot and flustered? And today of all days! She had to think of something else. Sometimes her whole life seemed to involve thinking of something else. The area before the scaffold was packed with common

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folk. Catherine stared at the crowd, forcing her focus on to them. There were scruffily dressed laborers, some slightly smarter traders, groups of young men, some boys, few women. They were for the most part dressed drably, some almost in rags, their hair loose or tied back simply. Near her people were talking about the weather. It was already hot, the hottest day of the year so far, the sky a pure pale blue. It was a day to be enjoyed and yet hundreds of people were here to see someone die. “What makes these people come to watch this, do you suppose, brother?” Catherine asked, putting on her I’m-asking-a-genuine-question voice. “You don’t know?” “Educate me a little. You are so much more experienced in these matters.” Boris replied in an overly sincere voice, “Well, sister. There’s a holy trinity that drives the masses and draws them here. Boredom, curiosity and bloodlust. And the greatest of these is bloodlust.” “And do you suppose this bloodlust is increased when it’s a noble head that is going to be severed from a noble body?” “They just want blood,” Boris replied. “Anyone’s.” “And yet these people here seem more interested in discussing the weather than the finer points of chopping someone in two.” “They don’t need to discuss it. They need to see it. They’ll stop talking about the weather soon enough. When the prisoner is brought out you’ll see what I mean. The rabble want blood and they’ll get it here today. And you’ll get a

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lesson in what happens to someone who betrays the king. One you can’t learn from books.” Catherine turned her face from the contempt in Boris’s voice. That was how she learned about life—from books. Though it was hardly her fault that she wasn’t allowed to meet people, to travel, to learn about the world from the world. But Catherine did like books and in the last few days she had scoured the library for anything relating to executions: she’d studied the law, the methods, the history and numerous examples. The illustrations, most of which showed executioners holding up severed heads, were bad enough, but to choose to witness it, to choose to be part of it, part of the crowd baying for blood, was something Catherine couldn’t understand. “I still don’t see why Catherine needs to be here at all,” Harold complained. “Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Boris didn’t even turn to Harold as he spoke. “But ladies don’t normally come to watch.” Boris now couldn’t resist replying, “No, not normally, but Catherine needs a lesson in loyalty. She needs to understand the consequences of not following our plans for her.” He turned to Catherine as he added, “In every aspect. To the smallest degree.” Harold frowned. “What plans?” Boris ignored him. Harold rolled his eyes and leaned toward Catherine to ask, “Is this about your marriage?” Catherine smiled thinly. “This is an execution, so why

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you would link it to my marriage, I can’t imagine.” Boris glared at her. “What I mean is, I’m honored to be marrying Prince Tzsayn of Pitoria and will ensure every aspect of the wedding goes to plan, whether or not I see someone having their head chopped off.” Harold was quiet for a few moments before asking, “But why wouldn’t it go to plan?” “It will,” Boris answered. “Father won’t let anything stop it.” This was true, and Catherine’s complete obedience to every detail of the plan was required, and that was why she was here. She had made the mistake a week earlier of saying to her maid, Diana, that Diana could perhaps look forward to a marriage based on love. Diana had asked Catherine whom she would marry if she could choose, and Catherine had joked, “Someone I’ve spoken with at least once.” Adding, “Someone intelligent and thoughtful and considerate.” As she said it, she had thought of her last conversation with Ambrose as he escorted her on her ride. He had joked about the quality of food in the barracks, then had grown serious as he described the poverty in the backstreets of Brigane. Diana seemed to know her thoughts and had said, “You spoke with Sir Ambrose at length this morning.” The following day after the conversation with Diana, Catherine was summoned to Boris and that was when she’d realized her maid was less her maid and more Noyes’s spy. Catherine suffered lengthy lecturing and questioning from Boris, but it was Noyes who listened most closely to her an-

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swers, though he made a show of leaning against the wall and yawning occasionally. Noyes was not even a lord, hardly a gentleman, but the way his lips curled in a half-smile made Catherine’s skin crawl and she feared him twice as much as her brother. Noyes was her father’s presence, his spy, his eyes and ears. Boris was that too of course, but Boris was always bludgeoningly obvious. At the interview, Boris had repeated the usual lines about unquestioning loyalty and obedience and Catherine had been pleased with how cool she’d remained. “I am merely nervous, as any bride-to-be is before their wedding. I have never even met Prince Tzsayn. Just as I try to be the best daughter I can be to Father, I hope to be a good wife to Tzsayn, and to be that I look forward to talking to him, getting to know him, finding out about his interests.” “His interests are of no concern to you. What is of interest and concern to me is that you do not express an opinion that counters that of the king.” “I’ve never expressed any opinion that doesn’t agree with Father’s.” “You implied to your maid that your marriage could be improved upon and that you don’t wish to marry Prince Tzsayn.” “No, I merely said that Diana’s marriage could be successful in a different way.” “To disagree with the king’s plans for you is unacceptable.” “I’m disagreeing with you, not with the king’s plans for me.”

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“I often wonder,” Noyes interrupted, “at what point a traitor is made. When precisely the line is crossed between loyalty and betrayal.” Catherine straightened her back. “I have crossed no line.” And she hadn’t: she had done nothing, except think of Ambrose. “In my experience . . . and, Princess Catherine, I do consider my experience in this area to be considerable,” murmured Noyes. “In my experience, a traitor in the heart and mind is soon a traitor in deed.” And the way he looked at her it felt as if he truly could see inside Catherine’s head. But she stared back at him, saying, “I am no traitor. I will marry Prince Tzsayn.” Catherine knew this to be true. She would soon be married to a man she’d never even met, but she couldn’t help her mind and her heart belonging elsewhere. Couldn’t help that she thought of Ambrose constantly, loved her conversations with him, contrived to be close to him and, yes, had once touched his arm. Of course, if Ambrose touched her, he’d be executed, but she didn’t see why she couldn’t touch him. But were these thoughts and one touch really traitorous deeds? “It’s best to be clear where the line is, Princess Catherine,” Noyes said quietly. “I’m clear, thank you, Noyes.” “And also to be clear on the consequences.” He waved his hand casually, almost dismissively. “And to that end you are required to attend the execution of the Norwend traitor, and witness what happens to those who betray the king.” “A punishment, a warning and a lesson, all rolled neatly

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into one.” Catherine mimicked Noyes’s hand wave. Noyes’s face was blank as he replied, “It’s the king’s command, Your Highness.” Sadly Diana had had a nasty trip down some stone stairs the day after Catherine’s interview and had been unable to resume her duties because of a broken arm. Catherine’s other maids, Sarah and Tanya, had been with Diana at the time but somehow had been unable to prevent the accident. “We agree with Noyes, Your Highness,” Tanya had said with a smile. “Traitors should be punished . . .” Catherine was brought back to the present by shouts from the crowd: “Bradwell! Bradwell!” Two men had come up the steps on to the scaffold, both dressed in black. The older man held up his hand to the people. His young and surprisingly cherubic assistant carried the tools of their trade, a sword and simple black hood. “It’s Bradwell,” Harold said unnecessarily, leaning over Boris to Catherine. “He’s carried out over a hundred executions. A hundred and forty-one, I think it is. And he never takes more than one strike.” “A hundred and forty-one,” Catherine echoed. She wondered how many of them Harold had witnessed. Bradwell was walking across the scaffold, swinging his sword arm as if warming up his shoulder muscles, and flexing his head from side to side and then round. Harold rolled his eyes. “Shits, he looks ridiculous. Gateacre should have been given the job.” “I believe the Marquess of Norwend requested Bradwell and the king obliged,” Boris said. “Norwend wanted it done

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cleanly and seemed to think Bradwell was best. But there are no guarantees on that score.” “Gateacre has a clean cut too,” Harold said. “I agree. He would have been my choice. Bradwell is looking rather past it. Still, it might add another level of interest if he botches the job.” At the mention of the Marquess of Norwend, Catherine’s gaze had moved to the opposite side of the scaffold to the other raised viewing platform. She had felt it too risky to discuss the people there unprompted, but now that Boris had brought the subject up she felt she could ask, “Is that the Marquess of Norwend on the other platform, in the green jacket?” “Indeed. And all the Norwend clan with him,” Boris replied. Though Catherine noted it was only the male members of the family. “The traitor’s kin must witness the execution; indeed, they must call for the traitor’s death or they will lose their titles and all their lands.” Catherine knew the law well enough. “And what of their honor?” Boris snorted. “They’re trying to cling on to that, but if they can’t even control one of their own they’ll struggle to maintain their position at court.” “Honor and position at court being one and the same,” Catherine replied. Boris looked at Catherine as he said, “As I said, they’re barely clinging on to either.” He turned back to the opposite platform adding, “I see your guard is with them, though thankfully he’s not in uniform.”

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Catherine didn’t dare comment. Was Ambrose not wearing the Royal Guard’s uniform as a mark of respect for royalty or disrespect for them? She knew he had his own views on honor. He talked of doing the right thing, of wanting to defend Brigant and of helping make the country great again, not for self-gain but to help all in the country who were suffering in poverty. She had noticed Ambrose when she’d taken her seat and had forced herself to turn away, but now Boris had mentioned him she could allow herself a slightly longer look. His hair, golden white in the sunlight, was loose and falling in soft waves around his face and shoulders. He was wearing a black jacket with leather straps and silver buckles, black trousers and boots. His face was solemn and pale. He was staring at the executioner and hadn’t shifted his gaze toward Catherine since her arrival. Catherine looked at Ambrose for as long as she would an ordinary man, then she made herself turn away, but still his image lingered in her head: his hair, his shoulders, his lips . . . A flurry of courtiers appeared from behind the scaffold. From the way they were stepping back and bowing, it was obvious that her father was on his way. Catherine’s heart beat erratically. She had lived a sheltered life in the queen’s wing of the castle with her mother and maids, going weeks or months without seeing her father. For her, his one and only daughter, his presence was still an occasion. The king appeared, walking quickly, his red and black jacket emphasizing his wide shoulders, his tall hat adding to his height. Catherine rose swiftly to her feet and demurely

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lowered her head as she sank into a deep curtsy. She was on a platform above the king but her head should be lower than his. Tall as her father was, it was still a contortion. Catherine held her stomach tight and thighs tense in a semi-crouch. Her corset dug sharply into her waist. She concentrated on the discomfort, knowing she’d outlast it. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the king. He leaped on to the royal platform, strode forward and the crowd, on seeing him clearly, cheered and a long slow shout went up, “A-lo-ys-ius! A-lo-ys-ius!” Boris rose from his bow and Catherine waited the required two extra counts before lifting her head. The king was motionless, looking to the crowd, and he didn’t acknowledge Catherine at all. Then he sat on the seat next to Harold, red cushions having appeared moments before to ease his royal rump. Catherine stood, feeling the relief in her stomach. Harold too had straightened from his bow and stood stiffly, hesitating before sitting, though Catherine was sure he’d be delighted to be next to the king. She waited for Boris to sit and then she straightened her skirt and retook her own place. Things moved quickly now. The king wasn’t noted for his patience after all. More men ascended the scaffold. There were four men in black and four in guard uniforms and, barely seen among them, diminished, small and frail, was the prisoner. The crowd jeered and shouted, “Traitor!” Then, “Whore!” and “Bitch!” and worse, much worse. There were words Catherine knew and had occasionally

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come across in reading but had never heard spoken, not even by Boris, and now they were flying through the air around her. They were more powerful than she’d known words could be, and they were not beautiful, poetic or clever, but base and vulgar, like a slap in the face. Catherine caught a glimpse of Ambrose, still and stiff opposite her, his face contorted as the crowd jeered and insulted his sister. Catherine shut her eyes. Boris hissed in her ear, “You’re not looking, princess. You’re here to see what happens to traitors. It’s for your own good. So, if you don’t turn to face the scaffold, I’ll pin your eyes open myself.” Catherine didn’t doubt Boris’s sincerity. She opened her eyes and turned back to the scaffold. Lady Ann Norwend was dressed in a gown of blue silk with silver lace. Her jewels sparkled in the sunlight and her blonde hair, pinned up, glowed gold. In normal times, Lady Ann was considered beautiful, but today was far from normal. Now she was painfully thin, her skin pale, and she was held upright by two guards. But most noticeable of all was her mouth: thick black lines of twine stretched from her top lip to her bottom where her mouth had been sewn up, and dried blood covered her chin and neck. Her tongue had already been cut out. Catherine wanted to look to Ambrose, but didn’t dare turn to him, couldn’t bear to see him again. What must he be thinking to see his sister like this? Catherine stared in the direction of Lady Ann and found the way to do it was to concentrate on the guard holding her up, and how fat his fingers were and how tight his grip was.

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The king’s speaker stepped forward to address the crowd, demanding silence. When the din subsided he began reading from a scroll, listing Lady Ann’s crimes. “Luring a married man into temptation” referred to her relationship with Sir Oswald Pence. “Failing to attend on the king when requested” meant fleeing with Sir Oswald when Noyes and his men confronted them. “Murder of the king’s men” meant just that and, hard as it was to believe looking at Lady Ann now, she had herself stabbed one of the king’s soldiers in the fight that left three dead including Sir Oswald. The murder was the key reason she was to be executed; murder of one of the king’s men was tantamount to killing the king himself— it was high treason, and so, to round his speech off, the speaker said, “And for being a traitor to Brigant and our glorious king.” The crowd went wild. “The traitor, murderer and whore is to be stripped of all possessions, which are forfeit to the king.” One of the black-clothed men approached Lady Ann and began removing her jewels one by one. Each time he took an item—a brooch, a ring, a bracelet—there were cheers and shouts from the crowd. Each item was put into a casket held by another man. When the jewels were all removed, that man took a knife and cut the back of her dress, and a fresh cheer from the crowd rose as the gown was ripped from her shoulders. Lady Ann was almost dragged off her feet, but the guard pulled her upright and held her. The crowd bayed again like a pack of hounds and began a chant of “Strip! Strip! Strip!”

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Lady Ann was left in her underdress, clutching its thin fabric to her chest. Her hands were shaking and Catherine could see that her fingers were misshapen and broken. At first she didn’t understand why, but then realized that was part of the ritual of a traitor’s execution. Those condemned for treason were not allowed to communicate with the king’s loyal subjects and so had their tongues cut out, their lips sewn up. But, as all court ladies in Brigant used hand signs to speak to each other when they were not allowed to use words, Lady Ann had had her hands broken too. One of the men loosened Lady Ann’s hair, which was long and fine and the palest of yellows. He took a handful and cut it at the nape of her neck. He held the hair and that too went in the casket. Finally she was left near naked, shivering despite the summer sun, the tattered gown almost transparent and clinging to her legs where she had wet herself. It seemed even Lady Ann’s dignity was forfeit to the king. Turning from Lady Ann, the speaker called to the platform opposite, “What do you say to this traitor?” Her father, the marquess, a tall, gray-haired man, came forward. He straightened his back and cleared his throat. “You have betrayed your country and your glorious king. You have betrayed my family and myself, all loyal subjects who have nurtured you and trusted you. You have betrayed my trust, and my family’s name. It would have been better if you had not been born. I denounce you and call for your execution as a traitor.” Catherine looked for Lady Ann’s reaction. She stared back at her father and seemed to stand more upright. In turn,

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five other male relatives—her two uncles and two cousins and her elder brother, Tarqin, who was close in looks to Ambrose with the same blond hair—came forward and shouted their denouncements of a similar kind and called at the end for her execution. After each censure the crowd cheered and then went silent for the next person. And after each one Lady Ann seemed to grow in strength and stature. At first Catherine was surprised at this, but she too began to sit taller. The more they demeaned Lady Ann, the more she wanted to show them how strong she was. The last to step forward was Ambrose. He opened his mouth but no words came out. His brother leaned toward him and spoke. Catherine could read Tarqin’s lips as he said, “Please, Ambrose. You have to do it.” Ambrose took a breath before saying in a voice that was clear but hardly raised, “You are a traitor to Brigant and the king. I call for your execution.” His brother put his hand on Ambrose’s shoulder. Ambrose continued staring at Lady Ann as tears rolled down his cheeks. The crowd didn’t cheer. Boris said, “I do believe he’s weeping. He’s as weak as a woman.” However, Lady Ann was not crying. Instead, she made a sign: her hand on her heart, the simple sign of love for Ambrose. Then she turned and her eyes met Catherine’s. Lady Ann moved her right hand up as if to wipe a tear, as her left hand went to her chest. It was a movement so smooth, so disguised, it was hardly noticeable. But Catherine had been reading signs since childhood and this was one of the first she

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had learned. It meant “Watch me.” Then Lady Ann made the sign of a kiss with her right hand, while her left swept downwards and clenched into what looked like an attempt at a fist. Catherine frowned. A fist held before the groin was the sign of anger, hate, a threat. To pair it with a kiss was strange. Then another sign: “boy.” Lady Ann turned to stare at the king and was making another sign, but the man holding her arm had moved in the way. Catherine didn’t know Lady Ann; she’d never spoken to her, had seen her in court only once. Catherine was confined to her quarters for so much of her life that seeing other women was hardly more common than seeing and talking to men. Had she imagined the signs? Lady Ann was brought forward and forced to kneel on a low wooden block. She looked down, and then turned so her eyes met Catherine’s again, and there was no mistaking their intensity. What was she trying to say, at the very moment of her death? Bradwell, the executioner, was wearing his hood now but his mouth was still visible, and he said, “Look ahead or I can’t guarantee it’ll be clean.” Lady Ann turned to face the crowd. Bradwell raised the sword above his head and the sunlight bounced off it into Catherine’s eyes. The crowd hushed. Bradwell came a step forward and then to the side, perhaps to assess the angle of his cut, then he went behind Lady Ann, circled the sword in the air over his own head once, took a half step forward, swirled the sword over his head once more,

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and in a continuous movement made a sideways slice so fast that it appeared for a moment as though nothing had happened. Lady Ann’s head fell first, hitting the wooden floor with a thud, and then rolled to the edge of the scaffold. Behind it, blood fanned from the neck of the slowly toppling body. The crowd’s cheer was like a physical blow and Catherine swayed back on her seat. Bradwell moved forward, retrieved the head and held it up by the hair. A chant of “Pike her” went up. Bradwell’s assistant stepped forward with a pike and the crowd’s frenzy increased further. Somehow, across the scaffold and the roaring mob, Catherine’s eyes met Ambrose’s. She held his gaze, wanting to comfort him, to tell him she was sorry. She needed him to know that she was not like her father or her brother, that she didn’t choose to be here, that despite the impossible distance between them she cared. Boris hissed in her ear, “You’re not looking at Lady Ann, sister.” Catherine turned. Lady Ann’s head was being put on a pike, and there was Noyes standing at the foot of the scaffold, a half-smile on his lips as he turned his attention from her to Ambrose. And Catherine realized she’d been a fool: this wasn’t a punishment, a warning or a lesson. It was a trap.

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AMBROSE BRIGANE, BRIGANT

“COULDN’T YOU, for once, do as I command?” It felt like the old days. When Ambrose used to live at home he had a regular summons to his father’s study to be reprimanded about some disobedience or other, and now, two years after he’d left, Ambrose was back standing before his father’s desk. But things were different. The house his father had rented for his visit to the capital wasn’t the usual smart mansion but a shabby villa. His father too seemed worn. His face was sagging slightly and there were more lines around his eyes, and for all his bluster and noise he seemed smaller. And of course there was another significant difference—his sister was now dead, her head on a spike on the city bridge. “Can you have the decency to answer me, sir!” “Which command in particular were you concerned about, Father?” “You know what I’m talking about. I told you what had to be said in the denouncement and told you to sound like you meant it.”

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“Well, as it turned out, no, I could not in this instance do as you commanded.” “What is it with you, Ambrose?” His father pushed back from the desk, shaking his head. “What is it that means I can’t denounce my sister? I don’t know, sir. Perhaps I believe her to be a good person. A good sister and a good daughter. The bigger question in my mind is how could you do it, and do it so well?” Ambrose’s father was still now. “You are as impertinent as you are naive, Ambrose. You are my son and I expect more of you.” “And Ann was your daughter. I expected more of you. You should have protected her with your life.” “You, boy, do not tell me what I should do.” Ambrose’s father lowered his voice. “She killed one of the king’s men. We’re lucky it wasn’t every one of us on the block. The king is looking for any chance to add to his income. We could have lost everything.” Ambrose sneered. “Well, I’m glad you know your priorities. It must be a relief to still have your lands even though you’ve no daughter.” “You are pushing me too far this time, Ambrose. I warn you to stop now.” But Ambrose couldn’t stop. “And I wouldn’t worry about falling out of favor with the king. You denounced Ann beautifully. I’m sure the king, Noyes and all the court were impressed with your words, your manner, your loyalty. And, after all, what does it matter to you about your truth, your virtue or your honor?”

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Ambrose’s father shot to his feet. “Get out! Get out of here before I have you whipped out.” Ambrose was already leaving, slamming the door after him and striding down the corridor. Tarqin was running toward him. “I could hear it all from across the courtyard.” Ambrose strode past his brother, outside and with nowhere to go he stopped and roared his frustration, hitting and kicking the wall. Tarqin came to stand by him. He watched and winced. And waited for Ambrose to calm. Eventually Ambrose stopped and rubbed the blood and broken skin from his knuckles. “What is it with that man? With anyone else I’m the epitome of control, but two minutes with our father and I’m kicking walls and breaking my own fists.” “He misses you and he cares about you. I admit he has a strange way of showing it. I suspect you miss him and you have a strange way of showing it too.” Ambrose gave a short laugh. “It’s good to see you smile.” Ambrose leaned his head against the stone of the wall. “There’ve been few reasons to smile recently.” “For any of us.” Tarqin put his hand on Ambrose’s shoulder. “You know father loved Ann. Loves her still. This has hurt him deeply.” “And yet he still denounced her.” “What else could he do, Ambrose? She’d been found guilty. If he didn’t denounce her, the king would take our

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lands. All the people in Norwend who depend on him would lose too. The king would win more. Father had to be convincing.” Ambrose couldn’t answer. He scraped his forehead against the rough stone. “Ann would understand, Ambrose. She knew the law as well as anyone. She knew Father loved her. It’s not right what happened but don’t blame him.” “But what they did to her . . .” Ambrose had thought many times of Noyes’s men torturing his sister, the pain and the insults she must have endured, and yet she stood tall at the end. He was so proud of her. Her intelligence and independence inspired him, though most lords wouldn’t see those as good things. Ann had been extraordinary for a Brigantine woman—even for a man she would have been unusual. She had traveled widely, to Pitoria and beyond. She spoke several languages and had helped Ambrose and Tarqin to learn Pitorian. Ambrose remembered the lessons fondly as she encouraged him, saying, “No, make it more guttural, from the back of the throat;” and to Tarqin, “Don’t stand so stiffly. Your hands and your body speak too.” And her own hands, which had signed so swiftly and so well, at the end were broken, that quick tongue cut out, those smiling lips sewn shut forever. What must she have been thinking, as they did it to her? Would she have just wanted to die as quickly as possible? Probably. She’d been captive for three weeks before her execution. Every day they would have tormented her. She was so thin at the execution.

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And all he could do was watch—and denounce her too. Ambrose felt Tarqin’s embrace and only then realized he was crying again. He spoke quietly, still facing the wall. “I don’t believe she was guilty. I mean, I can believe she killed the soldier, but she would only do that to protect herself. But I don’t believe she and Sir Oswald were lovers. They were friends since childhood; he encouraged her to learn. She admired him and valued him as a friend. Though what they were doing way over in the west, and why they were being pursued by Noyes, I don’t know. That’s never been explained properly. Something else was going on; I’m sure of that. And, anyway, since when is the king bothered who has a lover; half the court would be in his dungeons if that was the case.” Tarqin replied almost in a whisper. “I don’t believe we know the true story either, Ambrose, but I’m not foolish enough to say that to anyone but you.” “I’m a fool, do you think?” “You’re honorable and true, Ambrose. And I admire you for your virtue.” Ambrose smiled through his tears. “I’ll take that as a yes.” Tarqin was serious, though. “None of us really know what happened to Ann or Sir Oswald, but, whatever it was, it was against the king. I’ve just lost my sister; I don’t want to lose my brother too. I know you found it almost impossible to denounce Ann, but it was obvious you didn’t mean what you said. Small details like that can be enough to bring a man down when they’re against the king. Loyalty is all he wants and expects. Total loyalty.”

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“And loyalty to my sister? That counts for nothing?” “Aloysius believes he comes first, you know that.” “So, you think I’m doomed?” Tarqin shook his head. “No, but I think it’s dangerous for you here in Brigane now.” “It’s dangerous everywhere now.” “That’s not true. But we’re not welcome here. At court hardly anyone meets Father’s eye and even fewer talk with him. He’s been invited to dine with no one since our arrival, and no one has accepted his invitations to call on us; they’re all suddenly very busy with other engagements.” “Father should count himself lucky. They’re all twofaced rats. I wouldn’t trust any of them.” “Being ostracized isn’t a positive thing, Ambrose. With no allies at court, we’re weak. Back home, among our people, we’ll be safer.” Tarqin took a deep breath. “Father and I are returning north to Norwend tomorrow. Why don’t you come with us? At home you’ll be away from the Royal Guard, the court, and from the king.” “My work is with the Royal Guard. I swore an oath to protect the princess. I’m not going to run away.” Tarqin sighed. “Your work is another thing that’s dangerous, brother. I saw that look you shared with the princess at the execution. You show your feelings so plainly on your face, Ambrose. Noyes and Prince Boris will have noticed too. Noyes notices everything.” “So now I can’t even look at someone without them seeing a crime?”

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And all he did was look at Princess Catherine. He’d had to look at her. Her father and Boris appeared triumphant, but Catherine was different. She was so sad but calm too. Looking at her had helped him bear the sadness and pain. Ambrose saw Catherine most days as he stood guard outside her chambers, rode with her, occasionally spoke with her. Ambrose loved the way she smiled and laughed. He loved how she answered Boris back, with wit and spirit and intelligence. He loved how she took on different personas, provoking Boris by being outrageous, but only with Ambrose would she be sweet and gentle and thoughtful. At least as far as he knew only with him—and was it wrong that it irked him to think she might be sweet and gentle to other men? He loved the way she slid her slim foot into the stirrup and how she sat so strong and upright in the saddle and yet how, that hot day at the end of last summer, she’d ridden her horse into the sea with a look of such freedom and wildness, and jumped off, laughing, and swam around his own horse. He despaired when Boris heard of it and for two weeks she wasn’t permitted to ride at all and had never swum again. He despaired that somehow they’d ruin Catherine as they’d ruined Ann. And yet somehow, so far, she wasn’t ruined by them; she was as strong as them. Tarqin nudged him. “As I said you show your feelings on your face, and I’d call that look ‘love”.” “Admiration, respect and, I admit, a certain level of fondness, is what you see on my face.” Ambrose nudged Tarqin back, though he couldn’t stop himself from smiling.

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“Well, make sure that’s all anyone sees. And make it a lower level of fondness too.” “Take comfort, brother. This look of fondness will soon be replaced with a look of utter boredom: Princess Catherine leaves for Pitoria in a week to be married to a Pitorian prince and I’ll remain here, a lowly soldier and guard.” “Still, you need to take care, Ambrose, Noyes was watching you closely.” “Stop worrying! Even Noyes can’t persecute me for a look.”

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MARCH CALIA, CALIDOR

MARCH STOOD still and silent by the drinks table. He was supposed to look straight ahead at the wall opposite but if he angled his head slightly to the right he could see as much as he needed. Lord Regan sat with Prince Thelonius in the bay window at the far end of the room. The prince was leaning forward to Regan, almost looking up at him, almost asking rather than commanding. Regan rubbed his face with one hand and gave a short nod. The prince leaned back and said loudly, “Good. My thanks.” March had angled his head back to look at the wall as the prince called, “Refreshments!” March picked up the carafe of wine and the silver platter of grapes and moved toward the two men. He could feel the difference in mood. The prince was still looking tired; he’d aged ten years in the ten weeks since his wife and young sons had died. However, his eyes now appeared not so empty; he was almost smiling. Prince Thelonius had seen few visitors and even Regan had been kept away since their

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tempestuous meeting after the funeral, but in the last few days things had changed. The prince had woken earlier, dressed, bathed, talked lucidly, and last night he had demanded Regan be sent for. March poured the wine. Since his wife died, the prince had started drinking during the day. Not much but every day and that didn’t look to be changing. “Water for me,” Regan said. March put the grapes down and walked deftly back to his position. He picked up the water pitcher and selected the wooden bowl of hazelnuts rather than the plate of dried apples, which looked unappetizing. He returned slowly, studying the two men again as he approached. While the prince’s demeanor had improved, Lord Regan’s certainly had not. Regan, the trusted, closest, oldest friend of the prince was typical of the lords of Calidor: attractive in the way of the rich, powerful, strong and healthy. He wore a frown now. It suited him no less than his smile. But then everything suited him. Today he wore a gold-colored velvet jacket that glistened when it caught the sun and emphasized the breadth of his shoulders, as did the finely plaited brown leather straps that criss-crossed from his chest down to his hips, the straps holding his knives. Regan was the only man permitted to be armed in the presence of the prince; the only man able to frown while the prince smiled. March put the bowl down carefully, moved the grape platter a little to the side, adjusted the bowl of nuts a final time.

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“Your barbarian boy seems determined to be slow today,” Regan growled. “Take your anger out on me not him, my friend,” the prince replied gently. March poured the water slowly. He would have loved to throw it in Regan’s face, but he concentrated on the slow and steady stream, letting Regan’s words wash off him. March was used to receiving the occasional slight, though it was rare for a lord to lower himself to comment on a servant. Mostly the insults March received were mild: “jokes” about the prince having civilized him, or being referred to as “the last of the Abasks.” Sometimes there was genuine interest, though that was mainly about his eyes, as people would stare into them and tell him their opinion, which was usually either “amazing” or “freak.” One young lord only the previous month had demanded March stand in the light so he could see them better, remarking, “I’d heard that Abasks had ice eyes, but there’s blue and silver in there with the white.” He’d ended by saying, “Most unpleasant.” Sometimes people commented that they thought all the Abasks had been killed. March had used to think that too, until he met Holywell. “I’m not angry,” Lord Regan said. “Can’t I disagree, though?” It seemed his anger was making him raise his voice, March noted as he made a snail-paced return to his post by the table. “You’re my friend. I need your help. I asked as a friend.” The prince’s words were also raised enough for March to hear them now.

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“And afterward? What do you think will happen? You are respected, but this isn’t like bringing in some Abask brat to wait on tables.” March lost the prince’s reply as he was thinking, Fuck you! Fuck you! Regan was right of course; Prince Thelonius was respected and March was nothing but a servant, a virtual slave. The prince represented all that was civilized and refined; March, all that was primitive and uncultured. The prince had a reputation for wisdom, honor and fairness; Abasks had a reputation for being mountain-dwelling trolls. March had worked for the prince for eight years—half his life—and he’d learned about his home country and his people from the Calidorians. There was no one else to learn from as Abask had been destroyed in the war between Calidor and Brigant. Prince Thelonius had been granted the princedom of Calidor by his father and had refused to hand it over to his brother, King Aloysius of Brigant, on their father’s death. Then they had fought, as only brothers could, with hate more passionate because they shared the same blood, and as only rulers could—with armies. It was an uneven fight. Brigant was bigger and stronger and Aloysius the more experienced leader, but Prince Thelonius had something Aloysius could never claim: the love of his people. He treated the citizens of Calidor well, taxed them fairly and ensured the laws were applied wisely. Aloysius ruled Brigant through terror and violence. The Calidorians feared Aloysius and loved Thelonius. Abask, the beautiful, small mountainous region that was

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March’s birthplace, lay on the border between the kingdoms but had been always been considered part of Calidor. When Aloysius invaded, his armies burned their way across Abask, aiming for the Calidorian capital, Calia. Thelonius’s army was almost overwhelmed. Pulling all his forces back into a defense of the city, Thelonius managed to hold Calia for over a year, before counter-attacking and driving Aloysius’s army back across the border to Brigant, when, finally, a truce was declared. Brigant was despairing, their treasury empty and their army depleted. Calidor was exhausted but jubilant at having thrown back the bigger invader in a glorious and honorable defense against greater odds. The bonds with the Savaants to the south improved further, trade grew in the following years, Calidorian farms and vineyards prospered, and the towns were rebuilt. Few Calidorians cared about what had happened to the mountain people of Abask. And there were few Abasks left to care either: the Abask fighters had been wiped out in the first battles of the war and Abask was overrun, its surviving people left to starve or taken as slaves by the Brigants . Only seven years old when the war began, March’s own memories were vague. He remembered being told his father had been killed, and his mother and sisters died at some point but he wasn’t sure when. Mainly he remembered his older brother, Julien, holding his hand as they went in search of food. He couldn’t actually remember the feeling of being hungry, but he knew he must have been because he definitely did recall eating grass. But mainly he remembered holding

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Julien’s hand and walking day after day until Julien collapsed and some Calidorian soldiers returning from the border had prized him off his brother’s dead body and carried him to the safety and warmth of the prince’s camp. March used to think of himself as lucky: lucky that he’d not starved; lucky that he’d been rescued by the Calidorians not the Brigantines; lucky that the prince had taken him in and trained him to be his personal servant; lucky to have enough food to eat every day. He thought all that until he met Holywell. March had been back to the land that had once been Abask, when he was traveling nearby with the prince. He’d slipped away from the royal entourage and climbed up into the rugged mountains. He’d hoped to remember places or recognize some feature of the landscape, but in honesty it all seemed strange: more rugged and inhospitable than he’d thought. After three days he returned to the prince, telling him some of the truth. “I needed to see it, sire.” “And what did you find?” “The mountains remain, and a few ruins, but the bracken and woods have reclaimed the land. No one is living there.” The prince had smiled sadly. “It was always a tough existence, living in the mountains. Your people were strong and resourceful.” And left by you to starve or be taken into slavery, March wanted to shout in the prince’s face. “Well, I’m glad you returned to me, March. I was lost without you.”

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And March had taken a breath and forced out his reply. “It’s right that I should come back to you, sire. After all you’ve done for me.” Of course March didn’t mention that he had met Holywell. They’d spotted each other from across the valley near his village ruins. Holywell had waved and approached and March’s heart had leaped when he’d seen Holywell’s eyes were as pale and icy as his own. Nor did March mention to the prince that he’d spent two days with Holywell, who had told him a different history of the war. Holywell knew March’s family and told him how March’s father was killed in the first attack at the bridge at Riel; how his uncles died in the following battle at Teem, where the Abask troops were massacred as they led an attack that the Calidorians failed to support. How, after that battle, Aloysius occupied Abask and began to systematically destroy everything within it. How the Abask leaders sent a plea to Thelonius to come to their aid, but the prince, determined to protect his capital, refused. How the Abasks suffered for two long years, hiding in the mountains if they could, as Aloysius’s army destroyed their homes, crops and animals and reduced their beautiful country to a wasteland of burned-out villages and graves filled with the bodies of starved Abask children. March had vague memories of his father and uncles, and Holywell spoke Abask like them, swore like them, even laughed as March thought he remembered his father had. Holywell had almost died in the war—he showed March the

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scars on his body, saying, “The Brigantines cut me to shreds but I didn’t die. I asked them to kill me and they laughed. Despite the hardships, I healed. I worked for them, a slave to start with, all the worst jobs, but with time I realized I didn’t want to die any more; I wanted to get my revenge.” He smiled. “And I will. The Brigantines killed my family and your family. But they were an honorable enemy and I work for them still. My real enemy is Prince Thelonius. He was sworn to protect our land. He said he was our brother. But he betrayed us. For that there is no forgiveness. For that there can only be revenge.” Holywell had said all this in Abask and March thought it was the best speech he’d ever heard. It was the nearest thing to brotherhood that he had felt for years. He also felt like a fool for believing the lies he’d been told. The prince was not the heroic winner of wars against all odds but a monster who’d sacrificed a whole people so that the fat merchants of Calia could continue to live in safety and he could still sit on the throne. Holywell had shown him the truth—that no one in Calidor gave two fucks about Abask. Holywell spat on the Calidorians and their “civilized” ways and now so did March. Holywell was Abask and proud of it and so was March. March asked, “But how can we be Abask when Abask doesn’t exist any more?” Holywell jabbed March in his chest. “In there is Abask. In there. In your soul, your spirit. Thelonius will destroy that too if you let him. He’ll try to civilize you and turn you into

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one of them. Don’t let him. Remember your father, your uncles, your brother. They were proud to be Abask, as should you be.” Holywell encouraged March to return to his position with the prince and told him to stand patiently and wait and listen—and to keep Holywell informed of anything that might be useful to avenge the Abask people. Now, out of the corner of his eye, March watched the prince slide from his finger the gold ring with his emblem on it, an eagle with a green emerald for an eye. Regan took the ring and put it inside his jacket, and March was certain that his days of patiently waiting and listening were nearing an end.

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EDYON DORNAN, PITORIA

EDYON ENTERED the dimly lit tent and took a moment to let his eyes adjust. Across the small wooden octagonal table sat Madame Eruth. Her body was covered—dressed seemed the wrong word—in faded patterned scarves that blended so well with the rugs it was always a challenge to know where the tent ended and she began. “You’ve brought the bones this time.” Madame Eruth spoke with certainty, as she did all things. Her comment wasn’t a prediction but a statement of the obvious. Edyon put a kroner and the bones on the table and sat. “Tell me my future.” A kroner and the request were the same that Edyon gave every time he and Madame Eruth met, which was at least three times a year, but the bones were a new development in Edyon’s search for knowledge. Madame Eruth had a crystal ball, which she preferred. However, with Edyon she’d also used tea leaves, palm reading and cards. Edyon had had his future told and retold based on these devices for many years,

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but last time they met, at the fair at Gorgant in the autumn, Madame Eruth said he should kill an animal and bring the bones with him next time. And as luck had had it, at least for Edyon, a chicken had come into his possession a few days earlier. He’d managed to kill it, though he hadn’t wrung its neck properly and the wretched creature had squawked and flapped and clawed until Edyon had cut its head off, apologizing at the same time. Once it was dead he’d boiled the body until the meat fell off the bones and he left them to dry in the sun. He’d scattered the meat in the woods for the foxes to find, hoping some gift to nature might help with the prediction. He didn’t really believe in the power of nature and spent half his time telling himself Madame Eruth was a fraud, and yet he always came back. There was something here in the tent, with her, away from books and learning and logic, something deeper that he hoped would help him. Madame Eruth swayed forward and a wrinkled hand extended from the scarves to prod the chicken bones. “Move the table. Cast the bones on the floor,” she said. Her hand and Edyon’s coin were already back in her scarves. Edyon set the table to one side and Madam Eruth widened her legs. The scarves parted a little and, through transparent silk, Edyon glimpsed the inside of her thigh, pale, blue veined and hairless and reminding him of chicken skin. He picked up the bones and, holding them in his cupped hands, right hand over left, shook them, feeling their lightness, hearing their soft clatter. He swapped his hands over and

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shook them the same amount with left hand over right. All the time he was thinking to himself, My future .  .  . My future . . . “You don’t need to think of anything,” Madam Eruth said. “Best not to think.” Edyon carried on shaking the bones. Madame Eruth was beginning to sound like his mother with all her instructions. And he really didn’t want to think of his mother at this moment; he wanted to think of the future. His future. Not his mother’s plans and ambitions for him. Not the failure of his law studies or, rather, the success of those studies and the refusal of two universities to grant him a place. Not the lack of friends. Not the rejection of Xaviell of Ruen, whom he’d met at the Midwinter Fair and approached with all the courtesy and poetry of the best of legitimate lovers, only to be spurned at the first of the spring fairs and called in public a “common bastard.” All things that, one way or the other, Madame Eruth had predicted, though in truth anyone with common sense could have foretold, anyone except his mother, who insisted he was talented enough to do whatever he wanted, or indeed what she wanted. But while she had money enough to pay for his tutoring, and he had the brains to get the highest marks, his mother had forgotten to marry Edyon’s father, and all her money and clever talking could make no difference to the fact that being illegitimate meant being ineligible for university. So he might work as a lawyer’s scribe, slaving away for someone he could out-argue and out-think, but always a lackey, scribbling notes and running errands and—

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“However, you do need to throw the bones,” Madame Eruth reminded Edyon. He gave them a final shake and threw them. Edyon waited. He knew not to ask questions, never to interrupt. However, after a long silence he looked up from the bones to Madame Eruth. Madame Eruth had her eyes closed, but she pointed to Edyon. “You are not honest but the bones are true. They don’t lie. They don’t steal.” Edyon clenched his jaw. If he’d wanted another lecture, he would have stayed for breakfast with his mother. He looked down at the bones, willing them to reveal something hopeful, something different. Madame Eruth swept her hand above them, saying, “Speak to me. Tell me. Show me.” Edyon found himself thinking, Tell me. Show me. Madame Eruth went still and opened her eyes. She pointed at a bone with her crooked finger. “Your future .  .  . has many paths. You must make a choice. And –” she laughed a little—‘thievery is not always the wrong one.” She looked up at Edyon. “But you must be honest.” Edyon nodded earnestly, already feeling he’d wasted his money. This was even vaguer than ususal. And who in the whole country was truly honest? Madame Eruth turned her gaze back to the bones, swooping her head low as if smelling them. “With the new moon, a new man enters your life.”

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Edyon had been expecting this. There was always a new man entering his life. “A foreign man. Handsome.” Madame Eruth’s new men were always handsome, though not often foreign, but this was hardly a dramatic revelation. “He is in pain, so much pain. I cannot see if he lives or dies.” Madam Eruth caught Edyon’s eye, frowning as if this was his fault. “You might help him. But beware: he lies too.” She passed her hands over the bones again and a spasm of something like fear crossed her wrinkled face. “This is not like anything I have seen before. Did you kill the bird yourself? You didn’t find it dead somewhere?” “I killed it. And prepared the bones.” “You’re not lying?” “I would never lie to you.” Madam Eruth frowned again but turned to the bones once more. “This is the crossroads. Your future divides here. The foreign man is watching you. There is a journey, a difficult one –” and she pointed to the wishbone—‘to far lands and riches or –” and here she pointed to the cracked thigh bone— ‘to . . . pain, suffering and death.” Edyon had to ask. “My death or the foreign man’s?” Madame Eruth shook her head. “I see death all around you now.”

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An Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC Penguin.com

RAZORBILL & colophon is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

Produced by Alloy Entertainment 1325 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10019 First published in the United States of America by Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018 Copyright Š 2018 by Alloy Entertainment Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader. library of congress cataloging-in-publication data is available Printed in the United States of America ISBN: 9781595148520 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 Interior design: Eric Ford This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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one Gabe

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torm clouds clot the edge of the night sky, stained purple from the city lights; but somehow, right over the yucca-­ fringed yard, the stars are still visible. I spot Orion there at the center of the sky. It’s the only constellation I can consistently pick out: the belt, the sword, the stars dripping away like blood. On the horizon, lightning flutters. It’s late September, the Austin air dense and heavy. I sit in my swim trunks, dangling my feet into the pool. The flagstone patio, the carefully tended native plants, and the high-­ end bourbon in the monogrammed glass tumbler next to me all belong to my girlfriend. To Sasha. Sasha, whose parents are out of town. Sasha, who’s swaying down the path from the house with a wooden tray of snacks, in a black-­and-­white bikini and a pair of flip-­flops.

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lies you never told me

“Need another drink?” She holds up the crystalline decanter, waving it enticingly. “Still nursing this one,” I say, taking her in. Her long, muscular legs. Her flat stomach and gently rounded hips. “Lightweight,” she says. Her blue eyes sparkle as she pops the stopper out of the heavy bottle and takes a huge swig. “Aren’t you getting in?” “I like to get used to the water first,” I say, splashing my legs up and down a few times. “Oh yeah?” She sets the bottle down on a patio table with a heavy clunk. “Yeah.” Without warning, she launches herself straight at me. At the last moment she vaults over my head, coming down in a cannonball right in front of me. A wave of cool water washes over me, a shock in the heavy night air. I shake out my hair, laughing, as Sasha surfaces. “You’re gonna get it now.” I slide into the water and push off the side. She shrieks and swims away. I launch myself across the pool, my stroke clumsy but strong, my heart racing. She lets me catch her. I slide my arms around her narrow shoulders, and every cell in my body wakes up with a jolt at the feel of her body against mine. Her skin looks so pale next to my light brown complexion. The strings of her bikini top press hard against my chest. She slides one of her long, smooth legs between mine, and my mind goes silent. Smiling, wordless, she reaches behind her neck and pulls at

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the knot of her halter, slowly tugging it free. Her bikini top flutters away and lands on the surface of the water, a black-­ and-­white lily pad drifting aimless around us. “Sasha,” I whisper. It’s not my first glimpse of her small, perfect breasts. We’ve messed around plenty of times, in the backseat of my car, in an empty bedroom at a house party, anywhere we can find privacy. But we’ve never done this so openly, without worrying about time or exposure. Shielded by the foliage, we are open to the sky above. And then the phone rings. Sasha’s eyes go wide, her mouth flinching into a tight-­ lipped scowl. “They can leave a message,” I say, but she ignores me. She gently detaches herself from my body and wades back to the side of the pool, not even bothering to cover her chest with her arms as she climbs out. She scoops the phone up from the tray on the patio table, where it glows green between a bowl of tortilla chips and a plate of prepackaged cookies. The citronella torch gutters as she moves near it, the orange light leaving deep shadows across her face. “Mom,” she says. I swim toward the stairs, my stomach tight. Suddenly the idea of Mrs. Daley hovers over the backyard: her strained smile, her perfect red nails, the way she taps her foot. Sasha’s parents are lukewarm about me, at best. I’m not sure if it’s the mediocre grades, or the fact that I’m a Chicano skateboarder dating their very white daughter—never mind that I grew up in the

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Jennifer Donaldson

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lies you never told me

same bougie neighborhood as them, never mind that my mom’s family has been in the U.S. for generations. They’re old money. They could find any of a hundred reasons not to like me. The dreamlike mood of a moment earlier starts to dissipate. I suddenly realize the clouds have rolled in overhead. Orion is gone, the sky glowering and low. Sasha still hasn’t covered up. I can see gooseflesh along her arms as I climb out of the pool. I pick up the towel hanging on the back of a deck chair, try wrapping it around her, but she pushes me away. “How’s Aunt Patty?” she asks. A ring of black surrounds her eyes where her mascara has smeared. She pauses, her eyes flickering quickly toward me and then away. “What? No, Gabe isn’t here. Yeah, I promise. Jesus.” Something in her face changes. Her mouth goes slack for one quick second, and then tightens to stone. She takes a few steps away, muttering into the receiver, so low I can’t make out what she’s saying. My fingers knot anxiously at my sides; I absently pick up the tumbler of bourbon and sip from it. But the biting, burning thrill of the alcohol is gone. Now it hits my stomach like acid. “Whatever.” Sasha’s voice rises again, clipped and angry. She ends the call, and for a moment she stands still, phone in one hand. Then she turns to the patio table and grabs the decanter, throwing it with all her might to the ground. Glass and whiskey explode at her feet, glittering in the moonlight. Before I

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can say anything, she launches herself across the patio toward the house, stopping just under the eaves and raising both middle fingers into the air. “Sasha!” I sidestep the broken glass and run toward her. “They’re watching us,” she spits. She nods up toward the roof. Sure enough, I can see a tiny red light. A camera. “She checked the security cameras on her laptop.” Watching? A sick, slimy feeling runs over my bare skin. I tug the towel more firmly around my shoulders, feeling exposed. “Holy shit.” She grimaces. “Perverts!” she shouts at the camera. I wonder if there’s an audio feed, or if she’s just hoping her parents can read her lips. I imagine her parents sitting in a darkened room, the light of the laptop bleaching their faces. Or maybe they’re at her aunt’s kitchen table, drinking red wine and laughing at the two of us. The whiskey churns in my gut. I walk back to the patio furniture and pick up my shirt. It’s halfway over my head when I feel Sasha tugging at it. “You don’t have to go,” she says. “They’re three hours away. What are they going to do, drive all the way back just to kick you out?” I pull the shirt down over my head and raise an eyebrow at her. “Do you want to spend the rest of your junior year grounded?” She snorts. “They can go ahead and try. It’s not like they can make me stay home.”

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Jennifer Donaldson

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Typical Sasha. She’s never been into picking her battles. She prefers conflict so she can show off what a badass she is. “Yeah, I’m not really feeling this anymore. Let’s just call it a night,” I say. “Look, tomorrow we’ll head out to the Greenbelt— get out of the house, go hiking. Steer clear of cameras.” She steps closer. “Come on, stay. We’ll go up to my room. I don’t think there’re any cameras in there.” She slides her arms around my neck. “And if there are, fuck it. We’ll give ’em a show.” I gently disentangle myself from her grip. “Yeah, that’s not really my thing.” I pick up my skateboard from where I had leaned it next to a potted agave. Last summer my best friend Irene painted a winged eyeball across the wood. At the time I thought it looked awesome. Now it makes me think of Mrs. Daley: one more unwanted eye, spying. “I didn’t know you were such a prude,” she mutters waspishly. I walk toward the gate at the side of the house. “It’s just not worth getting in trouble over,” I say, reaching out to push it open. She darts in front of me, her spine whip-­straight. “Oh, I’m not worth getting in trouble over?” She’s working herself up—I can see it in the sharp angles of her limbs, the jut of her chin. If she can’t stick it to her parents, she’s going to stick it to me. I put my hands on her shoulders, but she jerks away. “Sasha . . .” “No, it’s okay. I guess I’m not worth the effort.”

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I glance up to see another camera, under the eaves of the house. Her parents are probably still watching, enjoying the little soap opera that they set off. “You’re worth sacrificing one stupid night for,” I say. “I’m leaving now so I can still see you later. I mean, you might not care about getting in trouble, but I care if your parents won’t let you see me.” She opens her mouth to say something, then shuts it abruptly. For a moment she stands there, her breath heavy, her face pale with anger. Then she grabs me by the collar and pulls me down, pressing her lips to mine. It’s rough and urgent, her tongue pushing forcefully into my mouth. I almost lose my footing but catch myself on the door frame. A part of me recoils deep inside, unnerved. She’s doing this to punish her parents; this is her flipping them off, one more time, for the cameras. The idea that they could be watching still makes my skin crawl. But something about her fierceness pulls me in, too, like it always does. She finally pulls away. Without another word, she walks back across the patio, toward the house. Out on the street, leaves catch in eddies of wind, skimming the roadway and then lifting off to fly away. It’s eerily quiet, and then I realize the crickets have gone silent. It’s going to rain. I throw my skateboard down onto the pavement and kick off. It’s a relief to get away. Sasha’s engaged in a lifelong war with her mom, a former debutante from an old Dallas family,

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Jennifer Donaldson

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prim and tight-­lipped. I don’t like feeling like I’m just a prop in the melodrama. A sliver of lightning cuts across the clouds just overhead, and a moment later the thunder snarls. I hop up the curb and off it again. I’ll have to hurry if I want to get home before the downpour. I lean into the downward slope of the hill. It comes out of nowhere: a flash of light, and then impact. I am flying. The wind streams around me, seeming for an impossible moment to buoy me up. It’s in that infinite moment, caught aloft, that I understand: a car. I’ve been hit by a car. The headlights surround me like a nimbus, like the light that surrounds the saints in a religious painting. Then the second impact comes as my body hits the pavement. The first heavy raindrops splatter around me. An icy chill unfurls through my body, spreading along my arms and legs and coiling the muscles into shivering knots. I don’t feel any pain—just the force ricocheting through my bones—but there’s something weird about how my arm is twisted. The clouds overhead swirl and glitter, pops of color exploding in their depths now. Or is that just my vision? I try to lift my head, to get a clear glimpse of my arm. A black shape flutters into view over me, and I struggle to figure out what it is. A bat? A kite? No. An umbrella. The patter of rain on my face ceases as someone holds an umbrella over me. The someone is hard to make out; they keep splitting, dividing, merging back together, all in the strange and shimmery air. I squint up, trying to make out a face. 8

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A cool hand rests on my cheek. “Shhhhh.” The voice is a woman’s. A girl’s, maybe. “Don’t move.” I stare up at her, trying to blink my head clear. The shifting world seems to be tinged with flares of sickening color now, shades of bile and blood at the corners of my vision. I hear a cell phone’s key pad and then the girl’s voice again. “I need to report an accident.” Lightning streaks across the sky, and in its split-­second illumination I see her. She’s young, a teenager. Maybe my age. Her face is thin and pale, sharp-­angled. Her hair is long and dark. Then the lightning passes and all I can see is the glow of her phone against her cheek, the silhouette of the umbrella against the sky. And then that starts to fade, too. Her voice gets farther and farther away. She’s saying something about my arm, but I can’t bring myself to worry too much about it. The sickly colors at the corners of my vision close in, throbbing for a few beats of my heart before I slide away into darkness.

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Two Elyse

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is almost morning. I would have thee gone,” says Brynn Catambay, touching her cheek lightly. “And yet no farther than a wanton’s bird, that lets it hop a little from his hand like a poor prisoner in his twisted . . . twisted . . . shit.” “Gyves,” I say, reading off the script. “Twisted gyves.” “I don’t know why I can’t get that.” She knocks her forehead lightly with her fist. “What’s that even mean?” “It’s like a leash,” I say. She looks at me, eyebrows raised. I shrug. “I looked it up the other day. When I was going over lines.” “Only you would prep for an audition by doing research,” she says fondly. “Nerd.” It’s Friday, early October, and the theater swarms with activity. Last week the drama department announced that East Multnomah High’s fall production will be Romeo and Juliet,

“’

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and dozens of us have gathered for the auditions. Most of the drama club is here—Frankie Nguyen, Nessa Washington, and Laura Egan hang out in the wings, running lines, and Kendall Avery sits in the front row on one of the faded theater seats, eyes closed in meditation, which she always claims helps her “get in touch” with the character. There are people I don’t know, too. A goth girl with a septum ring sits on the edge of the stage leafing through the audition packet. And there’s a guy I recognize from the basketball team, sipping from a bottle of water and laughing in the middle of a gaggle of girls. Brynn looks around the room and sighs. Everything she does shows just how comfortable she is with the attention of the world on her. Today she’s wearing tights printed all over with cats under a puff-­sleeved dress. She looks like she’s either ready to attend a mad tea party or catch a train at Harajuku Station. If she weren’t also unbelievably pretty it wouldn’t work. Lucky for her she’s got pillowy lips and thick black waves and the innate ability to contour without the use of a mirror. “Who are these people, anyway? They didn’t audition last year when we did Antigone or A Raisin in the Sun. Do something popular and every poser in Portland comes out of the woodwork.” “Hey, watch it,” I joke. “I’m vying for one of those poser spots myself.” “No way!” She frowns at me. “You don’t give yourself enough credit, Elyse.” Brynn’s always pushing me, always telling me I should go for better parts. She was the one who got me into theater 11

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Jennifer Donaldson

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lies you never told me

in the first place, back in freshman year, back when I was so shy I couldn’t meet anyone’s eye. I don’t know how she looked at me and saw actress material, but she’s stood by that assessment ever since. “Hey, everybody, welcome.” The room quiets down almost immediately. A young, dark-­haired man has stepped out onto the stage. His face is smooth and chiseled, his frame lean. He’s wearing a button-­down shirt and a pair of black-­framed glasses, glinting in the spotlight. My heart speeds up a little. I twist a lock of hair around my finger; the blond looks almost dark against my Portland-­ pale skin. “I’m Mr. Hunter. I’m the new drama teacher.” He smiles, revealing a dimple in his left cheek. “I know a few of you already, but I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of you. Thanks so much for coming out. Now, some of you are theater veterans by now . . .” A few people laugh, including Brynn. “But even if this is your first-ever audition, don’t worry. I want to give everyone a fair chance. So when you come on stage, tell me your name and what part you’re trying out for. You’ll start off with the monologue you’ve memorized, and then I’ll have you read a little from the script so I can get a good sense of how you approach different characters.” He claps his hands a few times. “Okay? Let’s get going. Break a leg.” We sit down in the creaky old seats. Next to me, Brynn jogs her leg gently up and down. It’s her only sign of nerves. She’s used to this by now. She got the lead in Antigone last year and starred as Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest 12

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the year before, the only time I know of that a freshman’s gotten such a big part. She’s almost certain to get Juliet. We watch the parade of would-­be actors, some nervous and stuttering, some hamming up every line. A slouching girl with gum in her mouth starts giggling hysterically right in the middle of the “wherefore art thou” speech, and the goth I noticed before barely speaks above a whisper. But Frankie and Laura both nail their readings, and the basketball player does a surprisingly good Tybalt, pacing angrily back and forth across the stage. And when Brynn slides into the spotlight, I can feel the whole room catch its breath. She commands the entire stage, the warm glow picking up the gold in her skin. She somehow makes her Juliet both flirty and innocent, both lovesick and playful. When she comes back to her seat, I hug her with one arm, and she gives a sheepish grin. “Elyse McCormick?” Mr. Hunter says it like a question. For just a moment, I freeze, my limbs suddenly senseless. I hate going right after Brynn. I manage to get on stage without falling flat on my face, which feels like an accomplishment in and of itself. When I’m there, vertigo tugs at my body, turning my stomach over and over. Darkness billows all around me. It flutters in the wings, it wells up from the audience and threatens to overtake me. The spotlight lands on me and I feel, for just a moment, like I’ve erupted in flame. “Go ahead.” It’s Mr. Hunter. I can’t see him, but I know he’s a few rows back. His voice, coming so clear and so sure from the obscurity, feels like a tuning fork against my spine. 13

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I find myself imagining that he’s the only one there—the only eyes, the only voice, the only person in the audience. My focus sharpens to a razor’s edge. “Hi, I’m Elyse, and I’m reading for the part of the nurse,” I say. I take a deep breath, raise my chin, and begin. “Even or odd, of all days in the year, come Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen . . .” I can feel the change come over me as I recite the words. It always happens—or it happens when I’m focused, when I’ve found something in the role to love. My shoulders round forward, my mouth quirks upward into a wistful grin, and I slide into character with ease. People always play Juliet’s nurse like she’s silly, but to me there’s something so sad about her. The first thing she talks about is her own dead child, and then she’s hushed and dismissed for speaking so fondly of little Juliet. There’s a whole tale of loss and longing beneath the surface, and it’s treated like a joke. I feel a little anger creep into my words, and I let it come—I let it flavor the warm, loving language, ever so slightly. I’m not like Brynn. She’s been doing theater since she was seven, a tiny diva in the making. I only started going to drama club because I was looking for something to do, for a way to avoid going straight home after school. I hadn’t intended to fall so head over heels in love with it. Brynn was right—there was something in me that wanted to perform, to speak loud and clear at the center of the stage. To be seen. To be heard. My monologue comes to a close. The air on the stage is almost stifling in the heat of the lights. The nurse fades away, 14

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and I’m just me again, awkward and exposed. My hands come together at my heart, anxious and fidgety. His voice returns. Deep, but light, agile. He must be an actor himself. Our previous drama teacher, Ms. Harris, was an old kook, a free spirit in caftans and shawls who had us pretend to be a leaf on a tree as a theater warm-­up. But Mr. Hunter exudes a kind of articulate calm; it’s easy to imagine him on stage, speaking poetry to the darkness beyond. “Thank you, Elyse. Can you go ahead and pick up that script there . . . yes, right by your left foot . . . and read from page forty-­two?” I pick up the packet, leaf through. Then I frown. “This is Juliet’s line,” I say. “I want to hear how you read a few different characters, please. Juliet’s just found out that Romeo’s been banished for killing Tybalt. Go ahead when you’re ready.” I scan the monologue briefly, wishing I could wipe the sweat off my forehead but not wanting to smear my makeup. Juliet, caught between loyalties. Juliet, who’s just now realizing the full weight of her decisions. I start to read out loud. “But wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin? That villain cousin would have killed my husband.” I take her on like a mask, and I turn into someone worthy of a spotlight. When my words finally fade, there’s a long silence from the auditorium. By now my eyes have adjusted a little, and I can just barely make him out, a faceless shape beyond the footlights. He 15

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Jennifer Donaldson

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shifts his weight; I hear papers rustling. But his voice betrays nothing. “Thank you, Elyse. Who’s next?” After everyone’s had a chance to audition, Mr. Hunter takes the stage one more time. Now that I can see him clearly again, the spell is broken—all the intensity of his voice replaced with mild-­mannered cheerfulness. “There’s so much talent in this room! I’m going to be faced with a very difficult decision in the coming days. I plan to have the casting list up outside the ticket office by end of day Monday. Thanks so much.” The room breaks into scattered applause, and then the lights come up and we’re all rubbing our eyes and gathering our things. I pick up my backpack and turn to see Brynn, a slight frown creasing her forehead. She looks at me in mild surprise, as if she’s just now noticed something. “He asked me to read. What was I supposed to do?” I can’t quite keep a note of apology out of my voice, even though I know I shouldn’t feel bad. That’s how auditions work; everyone gets a chance. Even me. “I didn’t say anything.” She holds up her hands defensively. “I’m just annoyed because you were good. I didn’t realize I was about to get upstaged.” I’m spared having to answer by Mr. Hunter, coming down the aisle toward us. He’s smiling, eyes sparkling behind his glasses.

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“Elyse, can I talk to you privately for a moment?” he asks. Brynn’s eyes narrow slightly. I feel my cheeks grow warm again, my pulse a staccato beat against my temple. “Um . . . okay. Brynn, I’ll text you later, okay?” “Sure,” she says. She picks up her purse and slides it slowly over her shoulder, frowning a little. “Bye, Mr. Hunter.” “Good work today, Brynn. Thanks for coming out.” He watches Brynn make her way down the aisle. And then we’re alone. The theater suddenly feels cavernous, the two of us huddled close together against the echoing dark. His glasses catch the light just so, and for a moment I can’t see his eyes. My fingers twist anxiously around one another. Did I do something wrong? Am I in trouble already? But when he turns to look at me again he’s smiling. My throat feels dry and tight, but I swallow hard and force a smile back. “I’m not supposed to do this,” he says softly. “But I can’t resist. I wanted to tell you that you’ve got the part.” His words don’t make sense at first. I stare at him. “What part?” “Juliet.” He grins. “Don’t tell anyone else yet—I’m posting the final decisions next week. But I wanted to see your face when you found out.” My mouth falls open. I shake my head mutely. “But . . . but I auditioned for the nurse.” “You’d be wasted on the nurse,” he says. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. A bright, warm

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Jennifer Donaldson

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feeling fills my chest. I don’t want to be this easy to flatter, but hearing that he thinks I’m talented makes me realize just how hungry I am for exactly that kind of praise. “I don’t know, Mr. Hunter. I’ve never . . . I’ve never carried a lead before. You probably want to pick Brynn. She’s good. And she’s already done some Shakespeare; at theater camp last year she played . . .” He’s shaking his head already. “Brynn is good. She’s quite good. But she’s not what I want in a Juliet. You, Elyse  .  .  . you’re really quite remarkable.” Our eyes meet. This close I can see that his eyes are hazel, the kind that looks blue, green, and gold in equal measure. For a second I’m unable to move. “I . . . what if I can’t do it?” I whisper. “What if I’m not good enough?” “I’m not worried about that,” he says. He puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. It’s starting to sink in, starting to feel real. The lead. He’s giving me the lead. A smile spreads slowly across my face. “You’re actually serious?” I ask. “I’m going to be Juliet?” “Yes,” he says. I can’t help it. I throw my arms around his neck, squealing softly. He’s taller than me, so I have to stand on my tiptoes. “Thank you!” I say. “Mr. Hunter, thank you.” “Don’t thank me. You earned it. Congratulations, Elyse. I’m really excited to start working with you.” He gently disentangles himself from me. I look up at the stage, the scratches and markings on the wood intimately familiar by now. I can almost picture myself, 18

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limned by light, in Juliet’s dress. Standing on the balcony. Dancing at the masquerade. Dying in the crypt, heartbroken and beautiful. “I won’t let you down,” I say. He’s suddenly serious. He looks me in the eye again, appraising, intent. Then he smiles. “I know you won’t,” he says.

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Three Gabe

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arth to Gabe.” Sasha snaps her fingers in front of my face. “Hey, Jiménez, look alive.” I blink slowly, coming back to the conversation. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and a bunch of us are sitting at a picnic table in a gravelly food-­truck court in south Austin, sharing brisket and white bread from Reinhardt’s. Sasha’s holding court, surrounded by her friends. I’m doing my best to look like I’m paying attention, but I’ve heard this story before. Something about a girl who forgot to take the tags off her leggings for dance tryouts. “Of course,” I say, leaning over to give her a placating kiss. She cups the back of my head a little too hard. “Ow,” I say, breaking away. “Careful.” But Sasha just smiles. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did that hurt?”

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I give her a look. It’s been two weeks since the accident. I got off lucky, with a mild concussion and a dislocated shoulder. They never caught the driver who hit me. They also never found the girl who dialed 911. She’d disappeared by the time the ambulance arrived. So there’s no witness, no evidence, no way to find out what really happened that night. I’m mostly recovered, but my head is still a little foggy, and focusing is hard. And yes, it hurts when someone presses their fingers into my skull. Sasha turns back to her friends. “So we’re all out on the floor going through the group audition, and I look down and I see it.” She pauses for dramatic effect. “The tag is still there, stuck to her ass. Like a sticker on an apple.” I take a bite of brisket, my eyes glazing slightly. The girls at the table are all eager little Sasha clones: Julia Sherwood dyed her hair Sasha-­blond over the summer; Marjorie Chin’s got the exact same handbag as Sasha, in a different print. Savannah Johnston and Natalie McAfee watch her closely, hungrily, and when Savannah laughs she throws back her head, just the way Sasha does. They’ve all heard this story. Most of them were there for it; they’re all on the Mustang Sallys, our high school drill team. But you don’t interrupt Sasha without becoming one of the people she likes to talk about. My phone rings. It’s my dad. “I’ll be right back,” I say, unfolding my legs out from under the table.

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Jennifer Donaldson

•••

lies you never told me

Sasha watches me with narrowed eyes. “While you’re up, get me an iced skinny mocha, no whip.” I nod distractedly. I hope my relief doesn’t show as I walk away from them. I don’t know if I can listen to another round of recycled gossip. “Hey, Dad,” I say into the receiver, once I’m out of earshot. “What’s up?” But it’s not Dad. It’s my little sister’s voice that comes blaring out of the phone. “Gabe!” Vivi shouts. “Merry Christmas!” Okay, so it’s October—we’re nowhere close to Christmas. But who cares? Vivi’s almost six, and because she has Down syndrome, her development is a little delayed. But that doesn’t mean she’s stupid. Who can resist a kid who thinks it’s Christmas every time she gets to talk to someone she loves? “Merry Christmas!” I boom, in my best Santa Claus voice. “What’s up, kid?” The giggle that comes through the phone line is pure gold. “I wearing tutu!” she squeals. “Tutu? You mean, like, you’re too-­too cute?” Not my best work, but she’s a pretty easy audience. She shrieks with laughter, and there’s the sound of the phone hitting something. A moment later, my dad picks up. “She wouldn’t wait until tonight to put it on. I’m doing my best to steer her away from messy snacks, but I don’t know how long this will last.” Dad’s tone is joking, but I can also hear the exhaustion in it. Turning Vivi away from something she wants to do is a serious undertaking. 22

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“Told you you should get two dance outfits for her,” I say. “One for eating peanut butter, one for performance.” “Thanks for the I-­told-­you-­so. You’ll be home by three, right? We need to be at the theater by three ­thirty. Don’t be late.” I hang up the phone. A moment later I get a photo. Vivi grins toothily in her pale pink leotard, a stiff ridge of tulle around her waist. Next to her is her service dog, Rowdy; she’s been trying to teach him how to pirouette. Pink. Nice. That won’t show every single stain, I text to my dad. He texts me back a crying face. I roll my eyes. PhDs aren’t supposed to use emojis. Neither are dads, for that matter. I glance back at Sasha. She thinks I’m spending the whole day with her; I’d forgotten about the dance recital. I realize abruptly that my shoulders are tense, my jaw gritted, and I force myself to relax. She loves Vivi—so maybe it’ll be fine. But the truth is, I never know exactly how she’ll react to things. The food court is packed with people snacking on tilapia tacos, bánh mì sliders, chipotle cheese fries, Day-­Glo snow cones. The coffee cart is at the other end of the lot, in the shade of a cluster of post oaks. I order the drink from the tattooed barista and stand to the side while she disappears into the truck to make it. I lean back against the trailer, idly thinking about how I can best break the news to avoid a shitfit. Hey, Dad reminded me of a thing I’ve gotta do. I don’t want to, but I’ll be in big trouble if I don’t. Or maybe: Come on, Sasha, do it for Vivi. 23

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Jennifer Donaldson

•••

lies you never told me

She’s so totally obsessed with you, it’d mean the world. No one ever went wrong banking on Sasha’s vanity. Then I see something that brings me up short. There, at a table just a few feet away, is the girl who saved my life. The sight of her rockets through my brain like a firecracker. A moment ago, I couldn’t have described her with any certainty; my memories of that night are murky and shapeless. But now it’s like some dark corner of my mind lights up with recognition. She’s alone, crouched over a heavy textbook. Her cheekbones are sharp, her skin wan next to a dark sheaf of hair. Her scuffed purple Keds are the only colorful part about her—otherwise she wears cheap jeans, a black tank top. For a moment I second-­guess myself. It can’t actually be her. The night of the accident, it was too dark to make much out, and my brain had just been through a blender. For all I know, my savior was a seven-­foot-­tall dude in a bunny suit and I’m just remembering wrong. I watch for a moment, take in the way her toe taps slightly along with whatever she’s listening to on her headphones. Then she looks up from her book and meets my eyes, and all doubts are gone. Her eyes widen, and her whole body seems to recoil in a short, sharp gasp. She looks away again quickly, but I’m already sure of it. It’s her. Slowly, half-­afraid I’ll startle her like some woodland

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Gabe

creature, I step toward her table. “Uh . . . hi,” I say. Suddenly I’m not sure how to start. What’s the proper icebreaker for meeting a person who saved your life? She pulls one earbud out, but leaves the other in. I sit down across from her, giving a smile I hope is charming. “I think . . . I think you might be the girl who helped me after my accident a few weeks back. It was over on Briarcliff—a hit-­and-­run?” “Sorry. Wrong person.” She shoves the earbud back in, looks determinedly down at her book. But she’s lying. I can tell. Her mouth is a straight line, but her eyes are wide and almost frightened. I reach across the table and touch her hand to get her attention. She jerks her hand away like she’s been burned. Her pencil falls to the ground. “Sorry . . .” “No, it’s okay, just . . .” “Here, I . . .” We talk over each other for an awkward moment, both leaning down at the same time. I get to it first, and she snatches it out of my hand. “Look, I just wanted to thank you,” I say. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, clearly annoyed. “And I’ve got a lot of homework, so . . .” A shadow falls across the table. I look up to see Sasha, outline dark against the sun. A few feet behind her, the Sallys are standing in a tight group, glaring at me.

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Jennifer Donaldson

•••

lies you never told me

“Uh . . .” I say, stupidly. My heart drops. “Hey! I was just coming to tell you we’re going to the Springs. But I see you might have other plans.” Her voice is as bright as a blade, sharp with false cheer, her lips a blood-­red slash on her pale face. “Hey. Sorry, I was just . . .” “Don’t I know you?” Sasha’s talking to the girl, not to me. “You’re in third-­period computer lab, aren’t you?” I’m almost afraid to look at the girl. I don’t want to incite more of Sasha’s wrath than I have to. But out of the periphery of my vision I see her nod. “Yeah, you’re the girl that keeps throwing the curve.” If I didn’t know Sasha, I’d think she sounded impressed, but her eyes gleam dangerously. “What’s your name again?” The girl pauses for a long moment before she answers. “Catherine,” she says. “Yeah, that’s right.” Sasha turns back to me, smiling. “This one keeps getting perfect scores on the quizzes. We all want to kill her.” She says it almost playfully, like it’s all friendly teasing, but I know better. If they didn’t before, they will now, I think. But her words give me an idea. “Yeah, I’m in English with her. I was just asking about the homework.” It’s risky. She could fact-­check pretty easily, catch me in the lie. But her eyes soften a little. “Like you’ll even do the reading,” she says. She brushes her hair back over her shoulder. “Where’s my drink?”

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“Oh . . . yeah.” I jump to my feet. The barista long since called my order, and the drink is sitting there on the counter, the ice half-­melted. “Here.” Sasha eyes it distastefully, then heaves a sigh. She plunges the straw in like an ice pick and swirls the cup gently. “So, are we going to the Springs or what?” I swallow hard. “The thing is, Vivi’s got a recital. I totally forgot about it, but . . . I have to go to it.” I hold up my phone quickly, hoping the tutu picture will derail her a little. “How cute is this?” Her eyes soften a little. I feel some of the tightness go out of my back as she takes the phone from me. “Oh my God, that’s out of control. Look, she put a little tiara on the dog!” She shows the picture around to her friends, and they all coo and croon in appreciation. “You should come with me,” I say hopefully, edging away from the girl at the table. “It’ll only be an hour or so, and then we can go to Kerbey Lane after.” Her gaze snaps up. “I’m not eating pancakes on our date night,” she says, her voice frosty again. I fight the urge to roll my eyes. “Okay, then, Asti Trattoria or whatever.” Never mind that a meal at Asti will clear out the last of my birthday money. “Whatever you want.” She sighs patiently, like I’m a little kid. “Of course we’ll go to Vivi’s recital. God, I’m not a monster.” She hands the phone back to me and turns to her friends. “You guys have fun at the Springs. We’ve got to get going.”

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Jennifer Donaldson

•••

lies you never told me

I finally exhale. Crisis averted. Barely. “Thanks, Catherine. See you in class.” I give the girl a wave and turn to follow Sasha. Halfway to the parking lot I risk a glance behind me. She’s hunched over her notebook again, her hair spilling down over her shoulders to hide her face. But I catch a glimpse of her eyes, wide and wary, as she watches us go.

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Laia Everything about this raid feels wrong. Darin and I both know it, even if neither of us is willing to say it. Though my brother does not speak much these days. The ghost wagons we track finally roll to a stop outside a Martial village. I rise from the snowheavy bushes where we’ve taken cover and nod to Darin. He grabs my hand and squeezes. Be safe. I reach for my invisibility, a power awoken within me recently, and one that I’m still settling into. My breath wreathes up in white clouds, like a snake undulating to some unknowable song. Elsewhere in the Empire, spring has scattered its blossoms. But this close to Antium, the capital, winter still whips its chill fingers across our faces. Midnight passes, and the few lamps that burn in the village sputter in the rising wind. When I am through the perimeter of the prisoner caravan, I pitch my voice low and hoot like a snowy owl, common enough in this part of the Empire. As I prowl toward the ghost wagons, my skin prickles. I whirl, my instinct rearing in warning. The nearby ridgeline is empty, and the Martial auxiliary soldiers on guard do not so much as twitch. Nothing appears amiss. You’re just jumpy, Laia. Like always. From our camp on the outskirts of the Waiting Place, twenty miles from here, Darin and I have planned and carried out six raids on Empire prisoner caravans. My brother has not forged a single scrap of Serric steel. I have not responded to the letters from Araj, the Scholar leader who escaped Kauf Prison with us. But together with Afya Ara-Nur and her men, we have helped to free more than four hundred Scholars and Tribesmen over the past two months. Still, that does not guarantee success with this caravan. For this caravan is different. Beyond the perimeter, familiar black-clad figures move in on the camp from the trees. Afya and her men, responding to my signal, preparing to attack. Their presence gives me heart. The Tribeswoman who helped me free Darin from Kauf is the only reason we know of these ghost wagons—and the prisoner they transport. The lock picks are blades of ice in my hand. Six wagons sit in a half circle, with two supply carts sheltered between them. Most of the soldiers busy themselves with the horses and campfires. Snow


gusts down in flurries, stinging my face as I get to the first wagon and begin working the lock. The pins within are enigmas to my freezing, clumsy hands. Faster, Laia. The wagon is silent, as if empty. But I know better. Soon, the whimper of a child breaks the quiet. It is quickly shushed. The prisoners have learned that silence is the only way to avoid suffering. “Where the burning hells is everybody?” a voice bellows near my ear. I nearly drop my picks. A legionnaire strides past, and a tendril of panic unfurls down my spine. I do not dare to breathe. What if he sees me? What if my invisibility falters? It has happened before, when I am under attack, or in a large crowd. “Wake up the innkeeper.” The legionnaire turns to the aux hastening toward him. “Tell him to roll out a keg and prepare rooms.” “Inn’s empty, sir. Village looks abandoned.” Martials do not abandon villages, even in the dead of winter. Not unless a plague has come through. But Afya would have heard if that were the case. Their reasons for leaving are not your concern, Laia. Get the locks open. The aux and the legionnaire stalk off toward the inn. The moment they are out of sight, I get my picks in the lock. But the metal groans, stiff with rime. Come on! Without Elias Veturius to get through half the locks, I have to work twice as fast. I have no time to think of my friend, and yet I cannot quell my worry. His presence during the raids is the only reason we have not been caught. He said he would be here. What in the skies could have happened to Elias? He’s never let me down. Not when it comes to the raids, anyway. Did Shaeva learn that he snuck Darin and me back across the Waiting Place from the cottage in the Free Lands? Is she punishing him? I know little of the Soul Catcher—she is shy, and I assumed she did not like me. Some days, when Elias emerges from the Waiting Place to visit me and Darin, I feel the jinn woman watching us and I sense no rancor. Only sadness. But skies know, I’m no judge of hidden malice. If it were any other caravan—any other prisoner we were attempting to break out—I would not have risked Darin, or the Tribespeople, or myself. But we owe it to Mamie Rila and the rest of the Saif prisoners to try to free them. Elias’s Tribal mother sacrificed her body, freedom, and Tribe so I could save Darin. I cannot fail her. Elias is not here. You’re alone. Move!


The lock finally springs open, and I make for the next wagon. In the trees just yards away, Afya must be cursing at the delay. The longer I take, the more likely it is that the Martials will catch us. When I crack the last lock, I croon a signal. Snick. Snick. Snick. Darts hurtle through the air. The Martials at the perimeter drop silently, left insensate by the rare southern poison coating the darts. A half dozen Tribesmen approach the soldiers and slit their throats. I look away, though I still hear the tear of flesh, the rattle of a final breath. I know it must be done. Without Serric steel, Afya’s people cannot face the Martials head on, lest their blades break. But there is an efficiency to the killing that freezes my blood. I wonder if I will ever get used to it. A small form appears out of the shadows, weapon glinting. The intricate tattoos that mark her as a Zaldara, the head of her Tribe, are concealed by long, dark sleeves. I hiss at Afya Ara-Nur so she knows where I am. “Took you long enough.” She glances around, black and red braids swinging. “Where in the ten hells is Elias? Can he disappear now too?” Elias finally told Afya of the Waiting Place, of his death in Kauf Prison, of his resurrection and his agreement with Shaeva. That day, the Tribeswoman cursed him roundly for a fool before finding me. Forget him now, Laia, she had said. It’s damned stupid to fall for a once-dead ghosttalker, I don’t care how pretty he is. “Elias didn’t come.” Afya swears in Sadhese and moves toward the wagons. She explains softly to the prisoners that they must follow her men, that they must make no noise. Shouts and the high twang of a bow echo from the village, fifty yards from where I stand. I leave Afya behind and sprint toward the houses where, in a darkened alley outside the village inn, Afya’s fighters dance away from a half dozen Empire soldiers, including the legionnaire in command. Tribal arrows and darts fly, deft counters to the Martials’ deadly blades. I dash into the fray, slamming the hilt of my dagger into an aux’s temple. I needn’t have bothered. The soldiers go down quickly. Too quickly. There must be more men nearby—a hidden force. Or a Mask lurking, unseen. “Laia.” I jump at my name. Darin’s golden skin is dark with mud to hide his presence. A hood covers the unruly, honey-colored hair that has finally grown in. Looking at him, no one would ever


know he’d survived six months in Kauf Prison. But within his mind, my brother battles demons still. It is those demons that have kept him from making Serric steel. He’s here now, I tell myself sternly. Fighting. Helping. The weapons will come when he’s ready. “Mamie isn’t here,” he says, turning when I tap his shoulder, voice haggard with disuse. “I found her foster son, Shan. He said the soldiers took her from her wagon when the caravan stopped for the night.” “She must be in the village,” I say. “Get the prisoners out of here. I’ll find her.” “The village shouldn’t be empty,” Darin says. “This doesn’t feel right. You go. I’ll look for Mamie.” “One of you bleeding needs to find her.” Afya appears behind us. “Because I’m not going to do it, and we have to get the prisoners hidden.” “If something goes wrong,” I say, “I can use my invisibility to slip away. I’ll meet you back at the camp as soon as I can.” My brother raises his eyebrows, considering my words in his quiet way. When he chooses to be, he is as immovable as the mountains—just like our mother was. “I go where you go, sis. Elias would agree. He knows—” “If you are so chummy with Elias,” I hiss, “then tell him that the next time he commits to helping with a raid, he needs to follow through.” Darin’s mouth curves in a brief, crooked smile. Mother’s smile. “Laia, I know you’re angry at him, but he—” “Skies save me from the men in my life and all the things they think they know. Get out of here. Afya needs you. The prisoners need you. Go.” Before he protests, I dart into the village. It is no more than a hundred cottages with thatched roofs that sag beneath the snow, and narrow, dim streets. The wind wails through neatly tended gardens, and I nearly trip over a broom abandoned in a lane. The villagers left this place recently, I sense, and with haste. I tread carefully, wary of what might lurk in the shadows. The stories whispered in taverns and around Tribal campfires haunt me: wraiths tearing out the throats of Mariner sailors. Scholar families found in burned-out encampments in the Free Lands. Wights—tiny winged menaces— destroying wagons and tormenting livestock. All of it, I’m certain, is the foul handiwork of the creature that called itself Keenan.


The Nightbringer. I pause to peek through the front window of a darkened cottage. In the stygian night, I can see nothing. As I move to the next house, my guilt circles in the ocean of my mind, scenting my weakness. You gave the Nightbringer the armlet, it hisses. You fell prey to his manipulation. He is a step closer to destroying the Scholars. When he finds the rest of the Star, he’ll set the jinn free. Then what, Laia? But it could take the Nightbringer years to find the next piece of the Star, I reason to myself. And there might be more than one piece left. There might be dozens. A flicker of light ahead. I tear my thoughts from the Nightbringer and move toward a cottage along the north edge of the village. Its door stands ajar. A lamp burns within. The door is propped wide enough that I can slip through without disturbing it. Anyone planning an ambush would see nothing. Once inside, it takes a moment for my vision to adjust. When it does, I stifle a cry. Mamie Rila sits tied to a chair, a gaunt shadow of her former self. Her dark skin hangs loosely on her frame, and her thick, curly hair has been shaved off. I almost go to her. But some old instinct stops me, crying out from deep within my mind. A boot thumps behind me. Startled, I whirl, and a floorboard creaks beneath my feet. I catch a telltale flash of liquid silver—Mask!—just as a hand locks around my mouth and my arms are wrenched behind my back.


Elias No matter how often I sneak out of the Waiting Place, it never gets easier. As I approach the western tree line, a flash of white nearby causes my stomach to plunge. A spirit. I bite back a curse and hold still. If it spies me lurking so far from where I’m supposed to be, the entire bleeding Forest of Dusk will know what I’m up to. Ghosts, it turns out, love to gossip. The delay chafes. I’m already late—Laia was expecting me more than an hour ago, and this isn’t a raid she’ll skip just because I’m not around. Almost there. I lope through a fresh layer of snow to the border of the Waiting Place, which glimmers ahead. To a layperson, it’s invisible. But to me and Shaeva, the glowing wall is as obvious as if it were made of stone. Though I can pass through it easily, it keeps the spirits in and curious humans out. Shaeva has spent months lecturing me about the importance of that wall. She will be vexed with me. This isn’t the first time I’ve disappeared on her when I’m supposed to be training as Soul Catcher. Though she is a jinn, Shaeva has little skill in dealing with dissembling students. I, on the other hand, spent fourteen years concocting ways to skip out on Blackcliff’s Centurions. Getting caught at Blackcliff meant a whipping from my mother, the Commandant. Shaeva usually just glowers at me. “Perhaps I too should institute whippings.” Shaeva’s voice cuts through the air like a scim, and I nearly jump out of my skin. “Would you then appear when you are supposed to, Elias, instead of shirking your responsibilities to play hero?” “Shaeva! I was just . . . ah, are you . . . steaming?” Vapor rises in thick plumes from the jinn woman. “Someone”—she glares at me—“forgot to hang up the washing. I was out of shirts.” And since she is a jinn, her unnaturally high body heat will dry her washed laundry . . . after an hour or two of unpleasant dampness, I’m sure. No wonder she looks like she wants to kick me in the face. Shaeva tugs at my arm, her ever-present jinn warmth driving away the cold that has seeped into my bones. Moments later, we are miles from the border. My head spins from the magic she uses to move us so swiftly through the Forest.


At the sight of the glowing red jinn grove, I groan. I hate this place. The jinn might be locked in the trees, but they still have power within this small space, and they use it to get into my head whenever I enter. Shaeva rolls her eyes, as if dealing with a particularly irritating younger sibling. The Soul Catcher flicks her hand, and when I pull my arm away, I find I cannot walk more than a few feet. She’s put up some sort of ward. She must finally be losing her patience with me if she’s resorting to imprisonment. I try to keep my temper—and fail. “That’s a nasty trick.” “And one you could disarm easily if you stayed still long enough for me to teach you how.” She nods to the jinn grove, where spirits wind through the trees. “The ghost of a child needs soothing, Elias. Go. Let me see what you have learned these past weeks.” “I shouldn’t be here.” I give the ward a violent if ineffectual shove. “Laia and Darin and Mamie need me.” Shaeva leans into the hollow of a tree and glances up at the snippets of star and sky visible through the bare branches. “An hour until midnight. The raid must be under way. Laia will be in danger. Darin and Afya too. Enter the grove and help this ghost move on. If you do, I will drop the ward and you can leave. Or your friends can keep waiting.” “You’re grumpier than usual,” I say. “Did you skip breakfast?” “Stop stalling.” I mutter a curse and mentally arm myself against the jinn, imagining a barrier around my mind that they cannot penetrate with their evil whispers. With each step into the grove, I sense them watching. Listening. A moment later, laughter echoes in my head. It is layered—voice upon voice, mockery upon mockery. The jinn. You cannot help the ghosts, fool mortal. And you cannot help Laia of Serra. She shall die a slow, painful death. The jinns’ malice spears through my carefully constructed defenses. The creatures plumb my darkest thoughts, parading images of a dead, broken Laia before me until I cannot tell where the jinn grove ends and their twisted visions begin. I close my eyes. Not real. I open them to find Helene slain at the base of the nearest tree. Darin lies beside her. Beyond him, Mamie Rila. Shan, my foster brother. I am reminded of the battlefield


of death from the First Trial so long ago—and yet this is worse because I thought I left violence and suffering behind me. I recall Shaeva’s lessons. In the grove, the jinn have the power to control your mind. To exploit your weaknesses. I try to shake the jinn away, but they hold fast, their whispers snaking into me. At my side, Shaeva stiffens. Hail, traitor. They slip into formal speech when they speak to the Soul Catcher. Thy doom is upon thee. The air reeks of it. Shaeva’s jaw tightens, and immediately I wish for a weapon to shut them up. She has enough on her mind without them taunting her. But the Soul Catcher simply lifts a hand to the nearest jinn tree. Though I cannot see her deploy the magic of the Waiting Place, she must have, because the jinn fall silent. “You need to try harder.” She turns on me. “The jinn want you to dwell on petty concerns.” “The fates of Laia and Darin and Mamie aren’t petty.” “Their lives are nothing against the sweep of time,” Shaeva says. “I will not be here forever, Elias. You must learn to pass the ghosts through more swiftly. There are too many.” At my mulish expression, she sighs. “Tell me, what do you do when a ghost refuses to leave the Waiting Place until their loved ones die?” “Ah . . . well . . .” Shaeva groans, the look on her face reminding me of Helene’s expression when I didn’t show up to class on time. “What about when you have hundreds of ghosts screaming to be heard all at once?” Shaeva says. “What do you do with a spirit who did horrific things in life but who feels no remorse? Do you know why there are so few ghosts from the Tribes? Do you know what will happen if you do not move the ghosts fast enough?” “Now that you mention it,” I say, my curiosity piqued, “what will happen if—” “If you do not pass the ghosts through, it will mean your failure as Soul Catcher and the end of the human world as you understand it. Hope to the skies that you never see that day.” She sits down heavily, sinking her head into her hands, and after a moment, I drop beside her, my chest lurching unpleasantly at her distress. This is not like when the Centurions were angry with me. I didn’t bleeding care what they thought. But I want to do well for Shaeva. We have spent months together, she and I—carrying out the duties of Soul Catcher mostly, but also debating


Martial military history, bickering good-naturedly about chores, and sharing notes on hunting and combat. I think of her as a wiser, much older sister. I don’t want to disappoint her. “Let go of the human world, Elias. Until you do, you cannot draw upon the magic of the Waiting Place.” “I windwalk all the time.” Shaeva has taught me the trick of speeding through the trees in the blink of an eye, though she is faster than I. “Windwalking is physical magic, simple to master.” Shaeva sighs. “When you took your vow, the magic of the Waiting Place entered your blood. Mauth entered your blood.” Mauth. I suppress a shudder. The name is still strange on my lips. I did not know that the magic even had a name when it first spoke to me through Shaeva, months ago, demanding my vow as Soul Catcher. “Mauth is the source of all the world’s fey power, Elias. The jinn, the efrits, the ghuls. Even your friend Helene’s healing. He is the source of your power as Soul Catcher.” He. As if the magic is alive. “He will aid you in passing on the ghosts if you let him. Mauth’s true power is here—” the Soul Catcher gently taps my heart, then my temple— “and here. But until you forge a soul-deep bond with the magic, you cannot be a true Soul Catcher.” “Easy for you to say. You’re jinn. The magic is part of you. It doesn’t come easily to me. Instead it yanks at me if I stray too far from the trees, like I’m a wayward hound. And if I touch Laia, bleeding hells—” The pain is excruciating enough that thinking of it makes me grimace. See, traitor, how foolish it was to trust this mortal bit of flesh with the souls of the dead? At the intrusion of her jinn kin, Shaeva slams a shock wave of magic into their grove that is so powerful even I feel it. “Hundreds of ghosts wait to pass, and more come every day.” Sweat rolls down Shaeva’s temple, as if she’s fighting a battle I cannot see. “I am much disturbed.” She speaks softly and glances into the trees behind her. “I fear the Nightbringer works against us, stealthily and with malice. But I cannot fathom his plan, and it worries me.” “Of course he works against us. He wants to set the trapped jinn free.” “No. I sense a dark intent,” Shaeva says. “If harm should befall me before your training is complete . . .” She takes a deep breath and collects herself.


“I can do this, Shaeva,” I say to her. “I swear it to you. But I told Laia I’d help her tonight. Mamie might be dead. Laia might be dead. I don’t know, because I’m not there.” Skies, how to explain it to her? She’s been away from humanity for so long that she can’t possibly understand. Does she comprehend love? On the days when she teases me about talking in my sleep, or tells strange, funny tales because she knows I ache for Laia, it seems as if she does. But now . . . “Mamie Rila gave up her life for mine, and by some miracle she still lives,” I say. “Don’t make me welcome her here. Don’t make me welcome Laia.” “Loving them will only hurt you,” Shaeva says. “In the end, they will fade. You will endure. Every time you bid farewell to yet another part of your old life, a piece of you will die.” “You think I don’t know that?” Every moment stolen with Laia is the infuriating evidence of that fact. The few kisses we’ve had, cut short because of Mauth’s oppressive disapproval. The chasm opening between us as the truth of my vow sinks in. Every time I see her she seems further away, as if I peer at her through a spyglass. “Fool boy.” Shaeva’s voice is soft with empathy. Her black eyes lose focus, and I feel the ward drop. “I will find the ghost and pass him on. Go. And do not be careless with your life. Full-grown jinn are nearly impossible to kill, except by other jinn. When you join with Mauth, you too will become resilient to attack, and time will cease to affect you. But until then, be wary. If you die again, I cannot bring you back. And”—she kicks at the ground self-consciously—“I’ve grown used to you.” “I won’t die.” I grip her shoulder. “And I promise I’ll do the dishes for the next month.” She snorts her disbelief, but by then, I am moving, windwalking through the trees so rapidly I can feel the branches cutting my face. A half hour later, I hurtle past Shaeva’s and my cottage, through the borders of the Waiting Place, and into the Empire. The moment I’m clear of the trees, storm winds buffet me and my windwalking slows, the magic weakening as I leave the Forest behind. I feel a pull at my core tugging me back. Mauth, demanding my return. The pull is almost painful, but I grit my teeth and continue on. Pain is a choice. Succumb to it and fail. Or ignore it and triumph. Keris Veturia’s training, drilled into my very bones.


By the time I arrive outside the village where I was to meet Laia, midnight is long past and moonlight pushes meekly through the snow clouds. Please let the raid have gone smoothly. Please let Mamie be all right. But the instant I enter the village, I know something is off. The caravan is empty, the wagon doors creaking in the storm. A thin layer of snow has already settled on the bodies of the soldiers guarding the caravans. Among them, I find no Mask. No Tribal casualties. The village is silent when it should be in an uproar. Trap. I know it instantly, as sure as I’d know my own mother’s face. Is this Keris’s work? Did she learn about Laia’s raids? I pull my hood up, draw on a scarf, and drop into a crouch, observing the tracks in the snow. They are faint—brushed away. But I catch sight of a familiar boot print: Laia’s. These tracks aren’t here out of carelessness. I was meant to know that Laia went into the village. And that she didn’t come out. Which means the trap wasn’t set for her. It was set for me.

Summer 2018 Must Reads!  

Don't miss our MUST READ titles for summer 2018! Includes: - The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green - A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir - Lie...

Summer 2018 Must Reads!  

Don't miss our MUST READ titles for summer 2018! Includes: - The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green - A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir - Lie...