Blood dripped from the empress’s nose, and her muscles quaked. A sign she could not hold her shield against the madness forever.
So Safi snatched up the oars from the gig’s belly. Not once did she consider if this was what she should do—just as she would not consider swimming when trapped beneath a tide. There were oars and a shore to aim for, so she acted.
Seeing what Safi intended, Vaness formed two holes in the shield for the oars. Smoke and heat gushed in.
Safi ignored it, even as her fingers burned and as her lungs filled with salty smoke.
Stroke after stroke, she carried Vaness and herself away from death, until at last the gig thunked against dark gravel. Until at last, the empress allowed her iron shield to fall. It coiled back into decorative shackles at her wrists, giving Safi a full view of the black flames burning before them.
Its dark thirst could not be slaked. Wind could not snuff it out. Water only fanned its resinous flames all the higher.
Safi scooped her arms around the flagging empress and dragged them both into the soft waves. She felt no relief at having survived this attack. No heady satisfaction surged through her because she’d made it to shore. She felt only a growing emptiness. A gathering dark. For this was her life now. Not boredom and lectures, but hell-flames and assassins. Massacres and endless flight.
And no one could save her from it but herself.
I could run right now, she thought, eyeing the long shoreline—the mangroves and palm trees beyond. The empress wouldn’t even notice. Probably wouldn’t care either.
If Safi aimed southwest, she would eventually reach the Pirate Republic of Saldonica. The only civilization—if it could be called that—and the only place to find a ship out of here. Yet she was almost certain that she could not survive in that cesspool of humanity alone.
Her fingers moved to her Threadstone, for now that Safi’s life hung on a knife’s edge, the ruby had finally flared to life.
If Iseult were here, then Safi could charge off into that jungle without a second thought. With Iseult, Safi was brave. She was strong. She was fearless. But Safi had no idea where her Threadsister was, nor any clue when she’d see her again—or if she’d see her again.
Which meant, for now, Safi’s chances were better with the Empress of Marstok.
Once the warship had burned to a flaming skeleton and the heat off the attack had drawn back, Safi turned to Vaness. The empress stood rooted to the ground, stiff as the iron she controlled.
Ash streaked her skin. Two lines of blood dried beneath her nose.
“We need to hide,” Safi croaked. Gods below, she needed water. Cold, soothing salt-free water. “The fire will draw the Cartorran armada to us.”
Ever so slowly, the empress cracked her gaze from the horizon and fixed it on Safi. “There might,” she growled, “be survivors.”
Safi’s lips pressed thin, but she didn’t argue. And perhaps it was that lack of argument that set Vaness’s shoulders to sinking ever so slightly.
“We aim for Saldonica,” was all the Empress of Marstok said next. Then she set off with Safi stalking behind, across the rocky beach and toward the gathering dark.
Stasis, Iseult det Midenzi told herself for the thousandth time since dawn. Stasis in your fingers and in your toes.
Not that she could feel her fingers or her toes. She’d been sprinting downhill in this freezing mountain stream for what seemed an eternity. Twice she’d fallen, and twice she’d dunked herself head to foot.
But she couldn’t stop. She just had to keep running. Although to where had been a recurring question. If she’d read her map correctly all those hours ago, before the Cleaved had picked up her scent and started chasing, then she must be somewhere near the northernmost tip of the Contested Lands.
Which meant no settlements to take refuge in. No people to save her from what hunted behind.
For a week, Iseult had been traveling toward Marstok. The dead, lowlands around Lejna had eventually turned steep. Hilly. Iseult had never been anywhere that wasn’t flat enough to see the sky. Oh, she’d seen snowcapped peaks and craggy foothills in illustrations and she’d heard Safi describe them, but she never could have guessed how small they would make her feel. How cut off and trapped, when hills blocked her vision of the sky.
It was made all the worse by the complete absence of Threads. As a Threadwitch, Iseult could see the Threads that build, the Threads that bind, the Threads that break. A thousand colors to shimmer over her at every moment of every day. Except that without people, there were no Threads—and without Threads, there was no added color to fill her eyes, her mind.
Iseult was and had been alone for days. She’d trekked over pine needle carpets, and only the hundreds of trees creaking in the wind had kept her company. Yet no matter the terrain, Iseult had moved carefully. Never leaving a mark, never leaving a trail, and always, always moving east.
Until this morning.
Four Cleaved had picked up Iseult’s trail. She had no idea where they’d come from or how they had followed. This salamander-fiber cloak that the Bloodwitch Aeduan had given her two weeks ago was meant to block her scent from the Cleaved, yet it had, thus far, failed her. Iseult could feel the black corruption of Cleaved Threads still hunting.
And they gained ground with each passing minute.
I should wrap the Threadstone, Iseult thought vaguely, a distant thrum of inner dialogue to weave between her stamping, splashing footsteps. Wrap it in a bit of cloth so it doesn’t keep bruising me when I run.
She’d thought this particular refrain at least a hundred times now, for this wasn’t the first time she had found herself sprinting over rough forest terrain. Yet every time she’d finally been able to pause and duck beneath a log, she’d been so focused on catching her breath or straining her witchery for some sign of pursuing Threads that she’d forgotten to wrap the Threadstone. At least until it started bruising her again.
Other times, Iseult would tumble so deeply into daydreams that she’d forget her surroundings entirely for a bit. She’d imagine what it might be like to actually be the Cahr Awen.
Iseult and Safi had gone in the Origin Well of Nubrevna. They had touched its spring, and an earthquake had rolled through the land. I have found the Cahr Awen, Monk Evrane had then told Iseult and Safi, and you have awoken the Water Well.
For Safi, that title made perfect sense. She was sunshine and simplicity. Of course she would be the Light-Bringer half of the Cahr Awen. But Iseult was not the opposite of Safi. She wasn’t starshine or complexity. She wasn’t anything at all.