Blood on the floor.
It weeps sideways, pooling in a moonbeam before the gentle roll of the ship sends it trickling back the other way.
The prince releases the sword’s hilt and rocks back two steps, heart banging against his ribs. He’s never taken another man’s life before. He wonders if this will change him.
The blade stays upright, lodged in the wood, even as the young man skewered beneath it tries to stand. Each time the assassin moves, the hole through his abdomen stretches wider. His innards glitter like silver coins in this half-light.
“Who are you?” the prince’s voice rasps out. The first sound he has made since awakening to a shadow in his cabin.
Thank Noden his father’s swords hang above the bed, ready for the grabbing when assassins strike.
“She’s … waiting for you,” the would-be assassin answers. He attempts once more to rise, this time reaching for the hilt with his bloodied left hand.
No pinkie, the prince notes absently, for his mind is turning over the word she. There is only one she who would do this. Only one she who wants the prince dead—and she has told him so herself many times.
The prince turns, lips parting to shout the alarm, but then he hears the man laughing behind him. A hacking sound with too many dimensions. Too much weight.
He turns back. The man’s grip is falling from the sword. He topples back to the wood, with more blood, more laughter. His right hand pulls something from a pocket in his coat. A clay pot tumbles free. It rolls across the planks. Through the blood. Out the other side, painting a long, glistening line across the cabin floor.
Then the young assassin gives a final, bloody chuckle before whispering, “Ignite.”
* * *
The prince sways upon the barren cliff and watches his warship burn.
Heat roars against him, the black flames of the seafire almost invisible atop the waves. Only their white, alchemical hearts shine through.
The noise consumes everything. The violent crack and pop of tarred wood that has braved more storms and battles than the prince has years.
He should be dead. His skin is charred to black, his hair singed off entirely, and his lungs burned to embers.
He doesn’t know how he survived. How he held the seafire back long enough for every man and woman on board to abandon ship. Perhaps he won’t survive. He’s barely standing now.
His crew watches from the beach. Some sob. Some scream. A few even search the shore, the waves. But most simply stare as the prince does.
They don’t know that an assassin has come. They don’t know that she is waiting for news of his death.
The princess of Nubrevna. Vivia Nihar.
She will try to kill the prince again, if she learns this attempt has failed. Then his people, his crew will be at risk once more. Which is why, as he sinks to the ground, he decides these sailors must never learn he still lives. They must think him dead, and Vivia must think him dead too.
One for the sake of many.
Darkness creeps along the edge of his vision now. His eyes finally shut, and he recalls something his aunt once said: “The holiest always have the farthest to fall.”
They do, he thinks, and I am perfect proof of it.
Then Merik Nihar, prince of Nubrevna, slips into a black and dreamless sleep.
There were advantages to being a dead man.
Merik Nihar, prince of Nubrevna and former admiral to the Nubrevnan navy, wished he’d considered dying a long time ago. He got so much more done as a corpse.
Such as right now. He’d come to Judgment Square at the heart of Lovats for a reason, and that reason was tucked inside a low hut, an extension of the prison behind it, where records were kept. There was one prisoner in particular Merik needed information on. A prisoner with no left pinkie, who now resided beyond the final shelf, deep in Noden’s watery Hell.
Merik sank into the hood of his tan cloak. True, his face was scarcely recognizable thanks to the burns, and his hair was only just beginning to grow back, but the covering offered safety in the madness of Judgment Square.
Or Goshorn Square, as it was sometimes called, thanks to the enormous goshorn oak at the center.
The pale trunk, as wide as a lighthouse and easily as tall, was dented to high hell-waters, and its branches hadn’t seen green in decades. That tree, Merik thought, as he eyed the longest branch, looks like it might soon join me in death.
All day long, tides of traffic poured through the square, driven by curiosity. Who would be forced into public shame? Shackled to the stones without food or reprieve? Who would feel the burning snap of a rope—followed by the cold kiss of Noden’s Hagfishes?
Desperation brought people in droves. Families came to beg the Nubrevnan soldiers for mercy on their loved ones, and the homeless came to beg for food, for shelter, for pity of any kind.
But no one had pity or mercy to spare these days. Not even Merik Nihar.
He’d already done all he could—given up all he could for a trade agreement with the Hasstrel estate in Cartorra. He’d almost negotiated one with the Marstoks as well, but ultimately death had come too soon.
A family blocked Merik’s way now. A woman and her two boys, each of them shouting at anyone who passed by.
“No crime in being hungry!” they hollered in unison. “Free us and feed us! Free us and feed us!” The older boy, wildly tall and skinny as a brittlestar, rounded on Merik.
“No crime in being hungry!” He heaved in close. “Free us and feed—”
Merik sidestepped the boy before twirling left around his brother and finally shooting past the mother. She was the loudest of the three, with her sun-bleached hair and a face lined with fury.
Merik knew that feeling well, for it was fury that fueled him ever onward. Even as pain cut through his body and blisterings on his chest were scraped open by homespun.
Others in the area picked up the chant. Free us and feed us! No crime in being hungry! Merik found his steps settling into a quick clip to match the rhythm of that cry. So few people in the Witchlands had magic, much less magic of any real use. They survived by the whim of nature—or the whim of witches—and their own unrelenting grit.
Merik reached the gallows at the oak’s fat trunk. Six ropes dangled from a middle branch, limp coils in the midmorning heat. Yet as Merik tried to skirt the empty stage, he caught sight of a tall figure, pale-headed and hulkingly framed.
Kullen. The name grazed across Merik’s heart, sucking the air from his lungs before his brain could catch up and say, No, not Kullen. Never Kullen.