- Published: 3 January 2017
- ISBN: 9780143784692
- Imprint: Bantam Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 480
- RRP: $32.99
I woke with his name on my lips and it burned. The lingering taste, as always, turned my mouth to ash.
Half a dozen warm, sleeping bodies were nestled around me, snoring quietly. I rolled over and stared at the ceiling. For the ? rst week or so I’d been acutely uncomfortable with their nearness – with the communal nature of life here. But this morning, as the sun prepared to rise beyond the windows and the walls, I felt a moment of gratitude that I was not, for once, alone.
Rising from the too-hot ?ood of blankets and limbs, I crept out into the small back courtyard.
I wasn’t the ?rst. Only yesterday he had mended that stool, not with his magic, but with his hands, and now there he sat. I drew near, waiting for him to notice me in the dark.
‘Did your dreams wake you again?’ Jonah of Limontae asked, turning from his silent vigil of the dawn sky. When I didn’t reply, he said, ‘They woke me.’
‘Don’t be. It’s just that you say his name all night, every night.’
I swallowed the shame at this mention of the curse on my soul.
‘Yes, but why?’
I met Jonah’s green eyes. ‘He left us here.’
And there was truth in that. Sancia was now under warder reign, its citizens living under curfews, punishments and the fear of imprisonment. With no way in or out people were starving, dying of infections, their homes destroyed and freedoms stolen. No escape and no end in sight. All bequeathed us when the Emperor of Kaya turned tail and ran, leaving his people to be conquered by the Mad Ones, Dren and Galia, whose ugly souls were warped by magic and cruelty.
‘We’ll get out of here,’ Jonah said with a certainty I didn’t share. ‘Finn and Thorne are coming.’ Which was what he said every night and every morning and every time anyone asked him. But it had been months and Finn and Thorne had not come. We had no way to tell if they were even receiving the messages we smuggled out.
‘What do you believe in, Iz?’ he asked me softly as he often did, always trying to make sense of the battle raging in his head. I hadn’t answered and didn’t intend to. Instead, I watched the moon. Jonah was prone to sentimentality, but it was foreign to me.
‘Why do you have so few words?’ He sounded frustrated now.
I sat beside him on the bench, unsure how to offer him anything but this small gesture.
‘I believe in the madness of magic,’ he murmured. ‘Dren and Galia are wicked to their core. But at least I understand the nature of their madness – they’ve been corrupted by the very same thing that courses through my veins. It’s the other one I don’t understand. The Sparrow. I think he must be a monster to have set his life to destroying things without the madness of magic to blame.’ Jonah turned his eyes to me and said, ‘It’ll get him, too, eventually. It’s magic that will be the end of us all.’
Here was what I believed.
That you were either the hunter or the hunted. The butcher or the meat. The caged or the free.
And that four of my daggers had the names of their targets writ into the sharp edges of their blades. The Mad Ones, Dren and Galia.
Falco of Sancia.
And the name I hated most. Isadora the Sparrow.
My body ached as it did each time I had night-walked. I went through my stretches slowly and methodically, working the muscles and easing the tension. My neck always ached the most, and it took some concentration to knead the knots from it. When I was done I nodded at Penn and we left the small house, checking the street to either side. We kept to the shadows as we made our way to the marketplace.
I wore a hooded cloak so my hair and skin wouldn’t be remembered. My hands strayed unconsciously beneath it to check each of my daggers, even though it had been years since the six weapons had left their places on my body – aside from when I used them. I couldn’t even stand to remove them when I slept or washed. The cool touch of metal against my skin had a calming effect. But then again, everything had a calming effect on me.
The marketplace had long since died and now all that remained was its skeleton. The ?rst time I’d witnessed it, nearly a year ago at Falco and Quillane’s national tournament, it was abuzz with life. I’d been wandering, wanting quiet and solitude, when instead I’d come across this explosion of sound and mess and something had stayed my feet. For the ?rst time I’d let myself explore tastes unlike any I’d experienced – little morsels of sweet and savoury delights, dripping in crystallised sugar or spice. I gazed at gems and jewels of sparkling beauty, carved wooden trinkets and jewellery, leatherwork ?ne enough for royalty. I listened to instruments I couldn’t name and ran my ?ngers over endless, glorious weaponry. The knives were the ?nest I’d seen, but I hadn’t purchased any – mine had been forged specially, their weight an extension of my body.
Now Penn and I entered a grey, drab parody of a marketplace. Few stalls remained, and these were for ration distribution. Warders guarded them, watching as Kayan folk lined up for what little food had been afforded by their new rulers.
Penn and I waited our turn. My eyes scanned the proceedings, looking for the face of my soldier. The girl, whose name I didn’t know, worked for the Sparrow and thought I did too. I spotted her exchanging chits for food. These chits could only be earned by turning in weapons, medicinal supplies, any belongings, or by working for the palace. If you worked you’d ?nd yourself cleaning streets – collecting the dead bodies and human waste – or serving the palace. This last duty paid a great deal more and was reserved for the beautiful. The Mad Ones did not abide ugliness.
When Penn and I reached the front of the line we handed over our chits. To earn them, each night I pillaged abandoned houses for anything I could trade. I stole from the dead and felt no remorse. It was the living who suffered now.
The girl took our chits without looking at me and turned to gather the small packages of grains and oats. All other supplies had been cut off when movement within the country was forbidden and the roads to the agricultural areas closed. Grains and oats came in at the behest of Dren and Galia, but there was only so much and it was never enough. Inns and taverns had shut their doors, bakeries had closed and ? shermen were forbidden to unmoor their vessels from the docks.
With an inconspicuous glance at the warders on either side of her, the girl handed us the packages, four in exchange for four chits. Underneath the bundle was a small scroll of parchment, hidden in her hand. I slipped it inside my tunic and nodded my thanks.
‘Lower your hood,’ one of the warders said abruptly. He was the shorter of the two, but it was dif?cult to distinguish him in any other way.
I didn’t move.
‘Sire, I’d warn against it,’ Penn spoke for me. ‘She has a birth defect, and might scare the children.’ There was indeed a family behind us, a mother and her three children gazing at us curiously.
The warder ?icked his hand impatiently and my hood ? ew back to reveal the truth of me, hideous as it was. Born without pigment in my hair or skin, I was as pale as a snow?ake, as colourless as a wisp of cloud. Except for my eyes. They were the only parts of me with a visible hue: the deep crimson of vein’s blood. They had shifted from this shade but once in my life.
One of the children gasped aloud. Another started to cry. But the third, I saw, smiled with rapt fascination even as his mother pulled him away from me.
‘She won’t hurt you!’ Penn assured them.
I returned my eyes to the warders. One of them looked bored enough with the world to drift off to sleep right there. But the one who’d spoken had a lip curled in disgust. I’d come to expect it from warders, although it never failed to strike me as odd, given they too were sapped of colour. I supposed it was different: they’d once had brown hair, or eyes that shifted to brilliant azure. In warders there was always the memory of colour, but in me there was not even a whisper.
‘What are you?’
I raised my chin. Not a good idea, as it would turn out. But even if I rarely felt much else, I did feel hatred, and it was too often an unwieldy beast.
‘Answer, demon,’ he ordered.
Demon. A memory brutalised me, but I pushed it back inside its box and locked it tight at the bottom of my mind.
‘She’s just a girl,’ Penn said quickly. ‘Born differently to you or me, but a girl.’
‘I’ll have the answer from the demon,’ the warder said. He wasn’t as small as Penn or me, of course, but small nonetheless. He bore it poorly, the weight of being so small in both body and spirit. It made him cruel.
Calmly, I placed my packages on top of Penn’s and told him with my eyes to leave the square. He shook his head, but I darted a second, ?rmer look at the exit and he acquiesced. Calmly, I straightened. Calmly, I squared my shoulders and met the warder’s faded eyes. And, calmly, I spat in his face.
Oh, boy. The fury that manifested in the alley was a living, throbbing thing. The sheer force of his anger sliced a sudden crack of lightning into the road beneath my feet and the force sent me ? ying back. Right before I hit the wall I went limp to lessen the impact. It still hurt. A lot.
I straightened myself slowly out of a crumpled heap in time to see Penn shepherding people from the markets. The warder stormed towards me. A second bolt of lightning struck a stall to his side; the material of its roof went up in ?ames and then his magic pummelled me into the wall, pinning me there. Pain ?ooded every muscle and bone, every nerve ending. I thought my teeth would shatter, my eardrums burst.
‘What are you?’ he snarled, too close to my face. ‘Why is your mind blank? You are no warder to block my powers, so why can’t I see anything?’
Because there was nothing. There was a body and a purpose and nothing else.
‘Speak or die, demon!’
He intensi?ed the pain and I closed my eyes. The lake of liquid calm spread through my mind.
For twelve years I lived in a cage. Suspended over a chasm haunted by monsters. And when ?nally I escaped it, I stumbled through the forest and came upon a vast, still lake. Its silver surface was calm until I waded into it. But even then it seemed to close around me and I had the clearest sense that nothing could disturb it. With a single breath I sank below to where the scraping claws and bars of my cage didn’t exist anymore. Here I knew a quiet that moved inside me, taking root in my mind and soul. I became the lake, and it me.
Now, in the marketplace, I let it soothe the pain and allay the hatred until I became nothing but the re?ective glass of its surface, protecting the truth of what lay beneath.
The warder grunted in outrage and his eyes held their intent to kill.
‘That’s enough,’ a ?at voice said.
The small warder lowered his hands immediately, ceasing the hail of pressure on my body. I sagged to my knees, trembling so badly it was a miracle I didn’t lose consciousness.
Approaching was a second warder, a woman tall and physically strong, far stronger than this male. She’d once had red hair, but it was now streaked through with white. ‘You’ve made your point,’ she told the man. ‘Killing in anger is beneath a warder.’
‘She was insubordinate.’
‘I will punish her. You are too emotionally disturbed.’
The male warder looked like he wanted to argue, but she clearly outranked him so he strode away. I forced myself to stand; my body felt like it had been taken apart and sewed clumsily back together. The female appraised me carefully, probably probing my mind like the man had tried to. ‘I am Gwendolyn.’
Interesting. This was the Viper, Galia’s right hand. A ?rst tier warder and very powerful. She was on my list, after Lutius, head warder of Kaya.
‘What’s your name, girl?’
I said nothing.
‘Are you mute?’
I inclined my head subtly. Let her think I was. Words were precious and powerful, and hadn’t nearly been earned by her.
‘Wretched creature,’ she murmured, and her voice held vague, weary pity.
I could have smiled then. She was amusing, this woman and her magic, that small man and his.
‘I ?nd myself reluctant to punish you,’ Gwendolyn mused. When you rarely spoke people deemed you stupid as well as silent, and said things in your presence they wouldn’t otherwise. ‘I had a daughter born with a lame leg,’ the Viper continued in the same detached voice. She had a shrewd look in her eyes and I suspected she was trying to manipulate me somehow. ‘Her father drowned her.’
We stared at each other. I let my eyebrows narrow coldly. She wanted anger. Empathy. Pity. I would give her nothing but contempt: for not having stopped him.
Gwendolyn shook her head suddenly, breaking our shared trance. She sighed and waved her hand. ‘Away with you. Keep the hood raised in future.’
I walked from the alley, focused on keeping my footsteps straight. Waves of ache made my spine feel brittle. At the street corner I found the small male warder. He motioned for me to stop and I braced myself for another attack. ‘If you weren’t so freakish, you might be appealing, demon,’ he told me with a chuckle. And then he backhanded me hard across the cheek.
‘Simple physical pain is often more brutal than anything rendered with the mind, I’ve found.’ He smiled and made way for me. ‘Go on then.’
As I walked past him I met his eyes and gave him six words: ‘I’ll ?nd you in the dark.’
There was no possibility of walking to the library that day. Morning rain had blanched the air, and Miss Darlington feared that if Cecilia ventured out she would develop a cough and be dead within the week.
Charlie’s ugly Crocs stuck to the mats on the floor behind the bar, making a sticky, squelching sound.
I know I can do this, I know I can. Whatever anyone else says. It’s just a matter of perseverance.
All souls are special. Son or daughter, Grimm or not, Life touches her spirit to every one of her creations.
Back in his den with the cocoa he settles into the beanbag chair bequeathed to him by a departing student the year before.
And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life