Then, because Safi’s life wasn’t complicated enough already, she’d discovered that she and her Threadsister Iseult might be the mythical Cahr Awen, whose duty it was to heal magic across the Witchlands.
The empress cleared her throat emphatically, snapping Safi’s mind back to the present.
“My treaty with the Baedyed Pirates is incredibly important for Marstok.” Vaness lifted her eyebrows sternly. “It took years to come to an agreement with them, and thousands of lives will be saved because of it—you are not even listening now, Domna!”
This was not entirely untrue, yet Safi took offense at the empress’s tone. After all, she’d been wearing her best I-am-a-perfect-student face, and Vaness really ought to appreciate that. It wasn’t as if Safi ever bothered to school her features with her mentors, Mathew and Habim. Nor even with Iseult.
Safi’s throat tightened. Instinctively, she grabbed for the Threadstone resting against her collarbone. Every few minutes, she’d haul out the uncut ruby and stare into its flickering depths.
It was supposed to light up if Iseult was in danger. Yet not a flash so far. Not a peep. This had soothed Safi at first—it was all she’d had to cling to, really. Her only connection to her Threadsister. Her better half. Her logical get-Safi-out-of-trouble half. The person who never would have let Safi agree to join the empress.
In hindsight, Safi could see what a fool’s bargain she’d made, offering up her Truthwitchery so the empress could root out corruption in her Marstoki court. Safi had thought herself oh so noble and oh so self-sacrificing, for by joining Vaness, Safi was helping the dying nation of Nubrevna win trade.
The truth was, though, that she was stuck. On a ship. In the middle of nowhere. With only the Empress of Insipid for company.
“Sit with me,” Vaness ordered, cutting through Safi’s self-inflicted misery. “Since you clearly do not care for Baedyed politics, perhaps this message will interest you.”
Safi’s interest perked up. A message. Already this afternoon had turned more enticing than yesterday’s.
Resting her hands on her own iron belt, she crossed the lolling cabin to an empty bench opposite the empress. Vaness rifled through a stack of mismatched papers, the slightest scowl knitting her brow.
It brought to mind a different face often pinched with a frown. A different leader who, like the Empress of Marstok, put his people’s lives forever above his own.
Safi’s lungs expanded. Her traitorous cheeks warmed. It was only one kiss they’d shared, so really, this blush could stop now.
As if answering her thoughts, Safi glimpsed a single name atop the page Vaness now withdrew: Prince of Nubrevna. Her pulse quickened. Maybe this was it—maybe, finally, she would have news of the world and the people she’d left behind.
Before she could learn anything or catch any words, though, the door to the empress’s cabin burst wide. A man rushed in, dressed as a sailor in Marstoki green. He spotted Safi and Vaness, and for two heartbeats, he simply stared.
False. The word fretted down Safi’s spine, her Truthwitchery tingling. A warning that what she saw was a lie. That duplicity now gaped at her while he lifted a single hand.
“Look out!” Safi tried to grab for the empress, tried to yank them both down for cover. But she was too slow. The sailor had pulled the trigger on his pistol.
It fired with a crack!
The shot never connected. It halted midair, a spinning ball of iron mere inches from the empress’s face.
Then a blade cut through the attacker’s back and a bloodied steel tip erupted from his belly. A singing slice that severed spine and organ and skin.
The sword ripped back. The body fell. The leader of Vaness’s personal guards appeared, dressed in black from head to toe, his blade dripping with blood.
The Adder High. “Assassin.” He offered the word so calmly. “You know what to do, Your Majesty.”
Without another word, he was gone.
The iron shot finally dropped from the air. It clattered to the floor and rolled, the sound lost to a sudden roaring of voices outside.
“Come,” was all Vaness said. Then, as if she feared Safi might not listen, she tightened the iron belt at Safi’s waist and yanked her toward the door with her magic.
Safi had no choice but to hurry after, despite the swelling horror in her throat. Despite the questions flinging across her mind.
They reached the assassin. Vaness slowed long enough to glance down. She sniffed dismissively, lifting her black skirts, and stepped across his corpse. Her feet tracked blood on the other side.
Safi, meanwhile, made sure to step around.
She also made sure not to look at the man’s dead eyes. Blue and staring straight at the caulked ceiling.
Outside, chaos had taken hold, yet Vaness faced it all without emotion. A flick of her hands and the iron shackles at her wrists melted outward into four thin walls that encased her and Safi. A shield. The empress then cut left across the deck. Voices hollered in Marstoki, all of them muffled and tinny.
Yet fully understandable. A second assassin was thought to be on board, and the Adders and the crew had to find him.
“Faster,” Vaness commanded Safi, and the belt towed harder.
“Where are we going?” Safi shouted back. She saw nothing inside this shield save the perfect, clear sky above.
Soon enough Safi had an answer. They reached the warship’s launch gig, stored astern and suspended for easy release into the waves. Vaness melted her front shield into a set of steps, which she immediately ascended.
Then they were in the swinging boat, iron spreading around the gig’s edges. Walls to keep them safe. But no roof, no protection against the voice now roaring, “He’s belowdecks!”
Vaness met Safi’s eyes. “Hold on,” she warned. Then her hands rose, chains clanked, and the gig lurched.
They dropped to the waves. Safi almost toppled off her seat, and spindrift sprayed in—followed by a sticky, salty breeze as Safi righted herself. It was all so calm, so quiet down here. Her knees bounced—how could it be so serene when violence ruled nearby?
The calm was a lie, for a single breath later, a burst of brilliant light stormed above the shields, glittery with glass and power. The boat flew back, tipping dangerously.
Last of all came the thunder. Violent. Scalding. Alive.
The ship had blown up.
Flames charged against the shield, yet the empress held the onslaught at bay. Paper-thin, the shields spread, coating the entire gig. Protecting Vaness and Safi against raging heat and cuffing the hell-fires to a muted roar.