Except … something was missing from that explanation. Like a key foisted into the wrong lock, the idea refused to click. After all, why would the emperor kill Safi? It seemed far more likely he would want his valuable Truthwitch kept alive.
Then again, perhaps he’d rather lose her forever than have her stand at his enemy’s side. And, the assassin had had blue eyes.
“Henrick.” Vaness spat the name, as if reading Safi’s mind. “His entire navy—I will find them. I will kill them.”
“I know.” Safi did know. The truth of that statement burned off Vaness. It heated Safi’s skin, boiled in Safi’s gut—and she would revel in Emperor Henrick’s downfall when it came. That toad-like leader of the Cartorran Empire, that sweaty-palmed man who’d tried to force Safi to marry him, tried to force her Truthwitchery into his clutches.
Safi offered her hand to the empress, and to her surprise, Vaness accepted. Her hands were surprisingly soft against Safi’s. Fingers that had rarely held weapons, skin that had never been worked.
Yet not once had Vaness complained today.
Iron might weep, but it did not break.
Scrapes and scratches Safi hadn’t noticed before now fought for attention. Now that she’d stopped, her aching feet had decided they would no longer be ignored. Especially her healing right foot. Yet she forced herself to say, “We need to keep going, Your Majesty. We’re still too close to shore.”
“I know … Domna.” Vaness uttered that title with a frown. “I cannot keep calling you that. Not once we are in Saldonica.”
“Safi, then. Call me Safi.”
Vaness nodded, mouthing Safi to herself as if she’d never used a first name before.
“But what shall I call you?” Safi asked, a spark of energy rushing through her at the prospect of a nickname. “Nessie? Van? V? Ssen … av?”
Vaness looked ill. She was clearly regretting this idea.
Safi, however, was only just getting started. Creating aliases had always been her favorite part of a heist, much to the annoyance of her mentor Mathew.
A bolt of fear hit Safi’s chest at the thought of him. At the thought of all the men and women working for Uncle Eron. They wouldn’t know where to find Safi now. Worse, they might think her dead and never come for her.
She swallowed, loosening her parched throat. Then she screwed her worries down deep, deep and out of reach. There was nothing to be done but hike onward.
And, of course, craft a new name for the empress. “Iron,” she suggested as they resumed their trek west, following the sun toward Saldonica. “Steel? Oh, Iron-y.” That made her chuckle.
Not Vaness, though, who now glared.
“Oh, I know!” Safi clapped her hands, delighted by her own genius. “I shall call you Un-empressed.”
“Please,” Vaness said coldly, “stop this immediately.”
Safi absolutely did not.
* * *
For hours, Safi and Vaness hiked. Mangroves gnarled into a jungle. Mahogany and oak, bamboo and ferns, interrupted only by swaths of yellow grassland.
Safi avoided the open meadows when she could. They were too exposed in case anyone followed, and the thick, waist-high grass was almost impenetrable. In the forest, the canopy grew so thick no sunlight pierced through, no plants could grow to block the earthen floor, which meant longer lines of sight. There was water in the jungle too. Twice the women came across a low streambed. Both times only a muddy trickle wavered by, but it was something. Even chalky, thick, and tasting of dirt, it was something.
They had just skirted another wide meadow when Safi noticed clouds pilling in. A storm would soon break, so they stopped at a fallen log. Stopping, however, made the pain return tenfold. Safi’s soles screamed. Her ankles moaned. And the thirst …
Dizziness swept over her the instant she knelt beside the log. She almost fell to her hands. Limp muscles bound to weary bones, and the empress fared no better. It seemed to take all Vaness’s remaining energy to crawl beneath the overgrown climbing vines.
At least, Safi thought distantly, the empress wasn’t demanding. She endured her plight—and Safi’s humor—as stoically as Iseult would.
Before Safi could join Vaness under the log, a water droplet slammed onto her scalp. More droplets followed, streaking down her forearm, leaving glowing white trails through dust and sweat and ash.
She had to catch this rain, no matter how much she’d rather use this moment to rest.
“Can you make a bottle?” Safi asked Vaness. “We need something to hold the water.”
Vaness conjured a slow nod. She was past exhaustion, once more drowning in grief. Several bursts of rain later, though, two round canisters rested in her smooth palms. One from each shackle. Safi took them cautiously, as if any quick movements might frighten away the empress.
Her eyes were so empty in this darkness.
“I’m going to walk back to the last clearing we crossed. It’ll be easier to catch rain in the open.”
“Yes,” Vaness said thickly. “Do that, Safi.” She scooted back beneath the log, trusting Safi to return. Or perhaps no longer caring if she was forever alone.
Safi found a spot near the clearing’s edge where ancient columns lay strewn across the earth. Half a crumbling wall too, and though Safi recognized marble beneath the ferns and vines, she didn’t recognize the ruins. Some forgotten race, no doubt swallowed by an empire long ago.
Whoever they’d been, they didn’t matter. Now all that mattered was the rain. It stormed hard and clean against Safi’s skin, and she let it pour down her body and into her mouth. She let it sink into her stained dress, her gnarled hair.
It felt good. It tasted good. Which was why the drumming of it covered the approaching footsteps. The tall grass covered the approaching bodies.
Safi’s hands were up, scrubbing against her scalp, her eyes foolishly closed. Her focus was briefly—oh, so briefly—absorbed in the feel of fresh water on her lips, when a steel point dug into her back.
Safi didn’t move. Didn’t close her mouth or give any reaction that she felt the blade there.
“Stay still, Heretic, and we won’t hurt you.”
Four things about this command collided in Safi’s mind at once. The person with the sword was male; he spoke in Cartorran with a mountain accent; he said “we” as if there was someone else in the clearing; and he’d called her “heretic.”