Safi’s eyes snapped wide. Rain slid through her lashes, forcing her to blink as she lowered her gaze and found exactly what she expected to see.
A Hell-Bard towered five paces before her. Though a steel helm covered his face, there was no missing the enormity of his neck. He was the largest man Safi had ever seen, and the two axes he hefted in each hand were almost as long as Safi’s legs. Rain glittered on the metal plates across his scarlet brigandine, on his chain mail sleeves and leather gauntlets—full armor that should have made noise. How had she not heard the brute coming, or seen him?
She swiveled her head just enough to glimpse the speaker behind. What she saw didn’t bode well. Though not as large as the giant, this Hell-Bard still cut a hulking silhouette. His armor was complete, his longsword expertly grasped in both hands, and the scarlet stripes across his gauntlets indicated he was an officer.
A Hell-Bard commander.
If a man is better armed or better trained, Habim had taught, then do as he orders. It is better to live and look for opportunity than to die outmatched.
“What do you want from me?” she asked the commander.
“For now, we want you to stay where you are.” His voice echoed in his helm, and nothing in Safi’s magic reacted. It was as if he spoke no truth yet also spoke no lie.
“It’s wet,” she tried again.
“Don’t pretend it bothers you.”
It did bother her. Safi’s toes were numb. Her knees had turned to needles. But she also knew better than to press the point—especially since her witchery was so clearly failing her in the face of a Hell-Bard. Everything had narrowed down to the way the rain glanced off the man’s armor. To the way the second Hell-Bard stood as still as the marble pillars mere feet away.
It was the moment Safi had run from her entire childhood, and Safi’s training was taking over. All those drills and lessons and practice rounds with Habim, all those lectures and dark stories from Uncle Eron—they had become a part of her. Long before she’d ever met Iseult, Safi’s teachers had hammered into her that she was strong, that she could fight and defend, and that no one should ever be able to back her into a corner.
Safi was a wolf in a world of rabbits.
Except when it came to the elite fighting force known as the Hell-Bard Brigade. With the sole purpose of rooting out unregistered witches in the Cartorran Empire, Safi had spent her life hiding from them—for of course her own magic was too valuable to ever reveal.
Since her first trip to the Cartorran capital when she was five years old, her uncle and tutors had told Safi there was no fighting the Hell-Bards. No defending against them. Uncle Eron, a dishonorably discharged Hell-Bard himself, knew better than anyone else what the Brigade could do. When you see their scarlet armor, he always told her, you run the other way, for if you get too close, they will sense your magic. They will see you for what you really are.
Safi might be a wolf, but Hell-Bards were lions.
Vaness is still out there, Safi thought. She who could block explosions with her witchery or crush entire mountains—a lion would be nothing against the Iron Empress.
And Vaness would notice Safi’s absence. Sooner or later, she would come looking and see those overflowing canteens.
“Zander,” the commander called, and the sword dug deeper into Safi’s back. “Help Lev.”
The giant nodded and twirled about to vanish in the grass, silent. Unnaturally so.
Safi twisted back toward the commander, ignoring how his blade cut through her gown, how he glared down at her, a shimmering pair of eyes beneath a dark helm.
“Let me go,” she said, hollowing out her Cartorran vowels, lilting her voice into her most regal accent. His was the accent of Safi’s childhood, the accent of the ignorant, mountain estates. She would crush him with the voice of royalty. “You do not want me as an enemy, Hell-Bard.”
The sword pressed farther. Pain, distant and cold, bit into her flesh.
Then a soft sound split the rain. He was laughing. A strange, foreign sound—like a sudden gust of wind. A new rise in the storm.
When he spoke next, his words were laced with amusement. “No, Safiya fon Hasstrel, you’re right that I don’t want you as an enemy.”
Hearing her name made her gut drop low. The sense of falling, falling too fast rushed over her.
“But the reality is,” he continued, oblivious of the bile rising in her throat, “I want your betrothed as an enemy even less. After all, Emperor Henrick holds my noose, so where he points is where I go. And whom he desires is whom I capture.”
He has won, Safi thought, dumbfounded. Emperor Henrick had destroyed her ship, and now he’d captured her too.
The Sun card taken by the Emperor in a single poorly placed hand. The Empress card is still in the deck.
But it wasn’t. The Empress had been drawn too, and that truth pummeled into Safi mere minutes later. The rain had eased into a gentle sprinkle when a new figure entered the clearing. With a crossbow in hand, the third Hell-Bard was by far the smallest of the three.
“Commander Fitz Grieg,” the Hell-Bard said, her voice female. “We retrieved the empress.”
Then came the giant. Zander. Across his arms hung a limp Vaness, a thick wooden collar locked around her neck.
Safi knew that collar. She’d seen it enough times growing up, and terror of it was as much a part of her childhood as the Hell-Bards were. The heretic’s collar is what Hell-Bards put on their prisoners, Uncle Eron always said. The collar cancels out dangerous magic. Even wolves can be transformed into rabbits.
For half a humid breath, panic set in. There was no escape now. No fighting, no running. Safi had gotten herself in a mess, and there was no one to come to her rescue.
What would Iseult do?
She had her answer immediately. It was Habim’s favorite lesson of all: Iseult would learn her opponents. She would learn her terrain, and then she would choose her battlefields where she could.
“How long will the empress be unconscious, Lev?” The commander addressed the smallest Hell-Bard while he bound Safi’s wrists behind her back with a wet, chafing rope. She didn’t resist, she didn’t fight.
But for all her seeming pliancy, Safi kept her fists curled inward, her wrists as wide as they could be.
“It was a large dose,” said the Hell-Bard named Lev. Her voice was husky and slurred. An accent of the Pragan slums. “And her majesty’s a small woman. I’d say she’ll be out for at least a few hours.”