Faris grew up fighting to survive in the slums of Brindaigel while caring for her sister, Cadence. But when Cadence is caught trying to flee the kingdom and is sold into slavery, Faris reluctantly agrees to a lucrative scheme to buy her back, inadvertently binding herself to the power-hungry Princess Bryn, who wants to steal her father’s throne.
Now Faris must smuggle stolen magic into neighboring Avinea to incite its prince to alliance—magic that addicts in the war-torn country can sense in her blood and can steal with a touch. She and Bryn turn to a handsome traveling magician, North, who offers protection from Avinea’s many dangers, but he cannot save Faris from Bryn’s cruelty as she leverages Cadence’s freedom to force Faris to do anything—or kill anyone—she asks. Yet Faris is as fierce as Bryn, and even as she finds herself falling for North, she develops schemes of her own.
With the fate of kingdoms at stake, Faris, Bryn, and North maneuver through a dangerous game of magical and political machinations, where lives can be destroyed—or saved—with only a touch.
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|Publisher:||Margaret K. McElderry Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 18 Years|
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Shimmer and Burn
MY MOTHER TRIED TO KILL me the night the guards arrested her.
Only six years old at the time, I remember her earnest face bent over mine, a hand laced through my own. She smelled strange that night, like damp stone and cold earth, and I wondered where she’d been to smell so unfamiliar. “What are you doing?” I finally asked.
“Saying good-bye,” she whispered back. “I love you, Faris. Remember that.”
What I remember is the look on her face as her blade sank into my chest and my blood darkened her hands. No remorse when I screamed, only fierce determination—as though I were a complicated pattern to be embroidered on the dresses my father sold downstairs.
What I remember is the way it felt, to be torn apart, like an imperfect seam.
Within minutes, guards arrived and dragged my mother into the street. Within days, she was dead. And then the guards returned, but this time with torches as they overturned my father’s small shop, destroying everything in their search for the gold they claimed she’d stolen from the king.
They never found it. Nobody did. The only thing my mother left behind that night was my broken heart, awoken to the idea that there was gold in this world, that there was more.
And she had wanted it more than she wanted me.
Half an inch lower and she could have pinned my heart to my spine. Instead, she only nicked a bone and left a scar threaded with questions. If I press hard enough, I can feel it shifting, like a bad memory trapped beneath the skin. It aches sometimes, when it’s cold.
It bites sometimes, when I’m angry.
Tonight it’s nothing more than a bump beneath my fingers as I rub absent lines across my collarbone, staring at the Herald Mountains that cradle the sky above us.
“There aren’t any stars,” Thaelan says, leaning back on his hands beside me, his feet crossed at the ankles. “How can you make a wish if there aren’t any stars?”
Dropping my hand, I mimic his stance, a half-empty bottle of barleywine clutched between my knees. We’re seated at the edge of the shallows, a series of oval puddles framed by narrow rings of earth meant to hold rainwater for irrigating the farming terraces that stair-step below us. Mist rises from the gorge on the other side of the kingdom’s outer wall, cloaking everything with a veil of white and moonlit blue shadow. Candlelight glitters through the gloom behind us, only a few pinpricks here along the Brim where oil and candles cost too dear, but multiplying the higher the kingdom rises and the richer its citizens become until it reaches the brightest lights of all, shining from the castle floating in the clouds.
“Here,” I say, pointing toward the castle with my chin, “just use one of those.”
“You can’t wish on a window,” Thaelan says darkly, head rolling toward me.
“It’s my birthday. I can do whatever I want.”
“It’s not your birthday until midnight. Eight past midnight, actually, so until then, Faris Locke, you are held to the same rules as always. No wishing on windows.”
I grin as he kisses me. “Your lips are cold,” he chides, inviting me under his dark wool cloak—sage green trimmed in silver with a clumsy pattern of ivy and stags. It’s Queen Robetta’s design; it’s Queen Robetta’s hobby, dictating the fashions of the court and distributing the patterns to the seamstresses of the kingdom to replicate. It’s the one thing she’s allowed to control; everything else belongs to her husband, King Perrote.
I tug the hem of the cloak over my knee and rub my thumb across the scar of embroidery. My father says her stags look like underfed mountain goats, and I have to agree.
It was my father who sewed me closed that night ten years ago. Nine perfect stitches, the last he’d ever do.
“We should have met somewhere warmer,” I say.
“You know I have to be careful.”
“You have to be secret.” My voice tightens. “Your fiancée might see.”
“Hey.” He bumps me with his shoulder. “You said you didn’t mind coming here.”
I duck my head, picking at the grass by my hip. I didn’t mind coming here when I was twelve and still believed I would marry Thaelan, back when our inequality was an abstract concept easy to ignore. But there are no excuses to play pretend anymore: The son of nobility does not marry the daughter of a drunkard and a thief.
Music plays in the distance, from the merchant tier of housing known as the Ridge, undercut with warm laughter and the sound of footfalls in a steady tempo of dancing. I try not to listen, to envy. The only dances in the Brim are the kind that end with compromised virtues in dark alleys and dirty rooms.
“What does Ellis’s dress look like?” I ask, as if that will alleviate the ache inside me for the life I’ll never have.
He groans. “Ellis could be standing naked at the altar and my eyes will still be on you.”
No, they won’t, because I won’t be there. “Don’t do that,” I say.
“It’s your birthday,” he says darkly, before taking a drink of wine. “I can’t tell you any lies on your birthday.”
It’s masochism, the way we sit so close I can smell the leather of the doublet he wears and the sweat that salts his skin from an afternoon training. Two years ago, he joined the ranks of the unsworn Guard, a mandatory military commitment demanded by the king from every noble son of Brindaigel. Now almost seventeen, Thaelan’s training is complete and he will swear his oaths soon, receiving the king’s brand above his heart. With it, a spell woven through his skin with invisible threads of the king’s magic tying Thaelan to the crown, ensuring a lifetime of forced loyalty to King Perrote and his ever-growing list of heirs. We’re up to seven now, and between their marriages, another six spares. The Dossel Family line of succession stretches like the wall around our kingdom, built solid and never ending.
Holding back a sigh, I rummage through my bag and emerge with two sallow limes, the rind so thin the bitter flesh shines through. “I brought you something.”
Thaelan frowns. “Where’d you get those?”
From a distracted merchant with enough to spare. “I found them.”
“It’s my birthday,” I say with a faltering smile tainted with guilt. I should have stuck to apples. Some guards turn a blind eye if you pocket a few battered windfalls while you work. But it’s been days since I’ve seen Thaelan and I wanted to show off with something exotic. “You can’t yell at me on my birthday.”
He pulls the limes out of my hand and brandishes them, his disappointment metallic, like blood in my mouth. “One day you’re going to get caught and then the king’s executioner will cut off your hands. And I need these hands.” His accusation softens as he drops the limes to take my hands in his. Kissing my knuckles, he says, “I can’t conquer the world without them.”
My breath catches in my throat as he turns my palms over and kisses my wrists and each of my fingertips. His hazel eyes tilt toward mine, cloudy beneath the fringe of his lashes. “Promise me you won’t steal anymore,” he says.
“I promise,” I whisper, wanting him so much it feels like a sin.
He draws me closer and kisses me with his own cold lips sweetened by wine: He wants me too. But there are rules to our stolen moments, an unspoken boundary. There are too many unmarried mothers in the Brim left abandoned to fate while their noble lovers never look back. We defy expectation by resisting temptation. It’s the way the gods like it: vice balanced by virtue.
“And anyway, I’m supposed to bring you gifts.” Reaching into his cloak, Thaelan pulls out a scrap of vellum, smoothing it across his leg. “Happy birthday,” he says.
Blood hits low at the base of my throat, a sudden frantic dance of adrenaline as I take the paper from him. “You found a new tunnel,” I say, already an expert at reading his codes.
He fights to suppress a smile. “Yes.”
I trace the path in my imagination, but I’m too eager and skip ahead, losing my place. I have to stop myself and slow down, reading it again.
“Thaelan,” I say, eyes lifting to his, my voice rising in question. “This tunnel doesn’t end.”
“Oh, it ends,” he says, “when you reach a staircase carved from stone, leading to a hallway full of marble and columns. And just beyond . . .” His voice drops and he barely breathes the words at my ear though they echo through me like a shout: “Avinea is still out there.”
I fumble to press the paper back against his chest as the hairs on my neck stand on end. Despite the dark, despite the cold, I cast a look around us for witnesses, eavesdroppers—maybe one of the king’s shadow crows, golems with smoky wings that circle the skies above, trailing embers and drifting ash in their wake. Controlled by scrying members of the king’s council, they watch Brindaigel with beady eyes, searching for infraction. And this paper Thaelan holds, this is treason.
Thirty years ago, a civil war divided the neighboring kingdom of Avinea between its rightful king, Merlock, and his younger brother, Corthen. The magic used to fight the war stagnated in the aftermath of Merlock’s victory and subsequent disappearance, producing a plague that decimated everything it touched. In an act of self-preservation, King Perrote moved the very mountains around Brindaigel to form a barrier between us and Avinea. It keeps the plague out.
It keeps us in.
Once a year, on the Day of Excision, the king sends his shadow crows over the mountains to survey the world beyond. One by one they return as the kingdom waits for Perrote to emerge with the formal conclusion. Every year it’s the same.
Avinea is dead and the plague has destroyed everything.
So with no other choice, Brindaigel hibernates another year, grateful that our king had the foresight to protect us. Of course, Avinea’s not the only thing out there. There’s a whole world still, separated from the plague by oceans and mountains and continents. But to leave would be to question the king; it would be calling him a liar when he says that we’re better off here, crowded in against ourselves, fighting for a broken scrap of sky and a chance to breathe.
Some have tried. Either over the mountains or around them, dropping ladders made of rope into the gorge, following goat paths to the peaks above. Most are young, desperate, eager for a life of their own.
All are dead now, executed where they were caught, their bodies left as warnings: Nobody leaves Brindaigel.
But we will.
Six months ago, Thaelan told me about the tunnels, offshoots of the castle dungeons, buried beneath our feet. He discovered the first by accident, the second by chance, and now, he knows almost all of them by heart. Old supply routes, we guessed, and it became an addiction: Where did they lead? Why weren’t they closed, and who uses them now? Every chance he gets, Thaelan risks his life and his family’s reputation by sneaking out of the training barracks and making maps, marking the dead ends and the twisty forks, searching for a glimpse of the world we’ve been told no longer exists. A world where a girl like me could love a boy like him and nobody could stop us.
“There was water,” Thaelan says now, tracing the edge of my chin with his knuckles. “And sand, and sky. I could see the stars.” He pauses, almost breathless, his fingertips soft against my neck. “I could see the moon.”
On instinct, I rock my head back as he steals a kiss against my throat. “You saw the moon?” I ask faintly. Our mountain borders cut off all but a small glimpse of the sky and we only ever see the moon for two weeks out of every four, when it rises far enough east. I’ve read that it grows fat every month, bloated enough to color the world with a silver light, but not here. Not in Brindaigel. “You saw all that and you still came back?”
Threading his fingers through my hair, Thaelan leans his forehead to mine. “In three weeks, I swear my oath to the king,” he says. “He’ll bind me to this city, Faris. To him. But I choose you. I choose you and Avinea and whatever we find out there, for better or worse, until death—or the plague—do us part.”
It’s not the first proposal he’s made me, but tonight, it feels more potent—more possible—than any before. “And then what?”
“And then we will have one hundred beautiful babies,” he says with a grin, “and all of them will have three heads and five arms.”
“It’s the plague,” I say. “They wouldn’t have any arms at all.”
His smile turns sad, thumb tracing the curve of my cheek. Exhaling softly, he pulls back, tucking the paper into his doublet. “Look,” he says, nodding to the sky. “There’s your wish.”
A single star emerges from the mist, flickering like the eye of Rook, God Above, whose ambition and courage drew him out of the dark caverns of the earth and into the temples of the sky. We praise him for leaving everything behind, including his sister Tell, the Goddess Below. And we scorn Tell for being too weak—too complacent—to follow his lead.
I accepted my mother’s decision to choose gold over me; I accepted the king’s orders to destroy my father’s shop and my father’s life, until the only job he could find for his nimble fingers was in picking rocks from the farming terraces and lifting tankards of ale. Thaelan’s betrothal, my life in the Brim, even the mountains that cradle us and keep the rest of the world at bay: I have never argued these facts or this fate.
Is that courage or is that submission?
“There was another raid last night,” I say.
“I heard,” Thaelan says absently, rubbing dirt from his boots with a frown.
I bite the inside of my cheek; raids are routine to him. A duty to be performed before dinner. “He was our age,” I say. The teenaged son of a man executed for slander over fifteen years ago. Sin begets sin, Perrote had claimed, and bad blood must be cut off at the root to keep it from spreading. But I walk soft through the streets and I hear the whispers that live in the shadows: The kingdom is overcrowded, and so long as there are Brim rats enough to bite back, Perrote will mask his true intentions beneath a banner of overdue justice.
In reality, he’s just making room.
Thaelan looks up at my tone, eyebrows furrowed. “Did you know him?”
“No,” I say, but I know the warning behind the raid, and the promise it carries for people like me. My mother failed to kill me ten years ago. The king’s executioner will have much better aim. “Let’s leave.”
“Of course,” he says, still focused on his boots.
“Right now. Before the tunnels shift again and the path disappears.”
“That’s only happened once and it was probably just my nerves.” He snorts, shaking his head and sitting back. “Those walls are so full of magic, I swear, sometimes I hear them breathing.”
“I’m serious,” I say.
“Right.” He runs a hand through his hair and gives me a sidelong look.
“Thaelan.” Shifting, I kneel in front of him, resting my hands on his knees, forcing him to look at me. He does so with familiar resignation: We’ve played this scene before, and he already knows how it ends.
But I am brave tonight, a true disciple of Rook. “I’m going to marry you,” I say, and when I kiss him, it’s like drinking too much barleywine: I feel woozy, light headed, completely off balance, and yet, grounded as the mountains themselves with my certainty. “Tonight,” I repeat against his mouth, and it thrills down my spine before guilt seizes it mid-shiver. “Cadence,” I say suddenly, as I should have said from the beginning. She’s only eleven years old and I can’t leave her here, not with a father who often forgets to come home, who forgets to bring food, who forgets to say that he loves her.
Who forgets sometimes if he does.
“She’s coming with us,” Thaelan says without hesitation, and I know he never considered otherwise.
Ignited, I cradle Thaelan’s face between my hands and kiss him the way I’ve never let myself kiss him before: full of hunger and greed and hope, all the virtue in me and all the vice, balanced on my lips.
And he wants both sides of me.
Moments later, we run hand in hand, giddy, laughing our way through the darkened streets of the Brim. When we wake Cadence, her blue eyes flash in the dim gloom of our bedroom, widening as she recognizes the face beside mine.
“Thaelan!” She throws back her blanket and bounds into his arms. “Mother of a sainted virgin, where have you been!?”
“Cadence,” I say, alarmed. Embarrassed. She runs wild when I’m working in the fields, and I can’t cure her of the vulgarities she learns from the other street rats.
But Thaelan laughs and she shoots me a triumphant smirk. “What do you know about sainted virgins?” he teases.
Her eyes flick to the statue of Charity balanced on the windowsill—a patron saint of virtue, and an apparent virgin like so many have been. It’s a cheap reminder to temper the greed that lives inside me, to deny the same vice that sent my mother to her grave.
I stole it, like almost everything else in this room.
“Well, I know they have mothers,” she says, and grins when Thaelan laughs again. “Which means I can’t ever be one.”
“Sweet Saint Cade,” Thaelan says, ruffling her hair.
I don’t laugh with them, annoyed. Wounded. She was too young to remember anyone but me taking care of her, and I know I don’t have soft hands and sweet songs and spools of thread for Cadence to stack in wobbly castles across the floor the way a mother would.
But Cadence doesn’t have nine stitches above her heart, either.
“Look,” she says, launching herself off the bed, wielding an imaginary sword in one hand, her other fisted behind her back for balance, the way Thaelan taught her.
I sidestep her and begin packing our sparse belongings into a canvas bag. Clothes, a handful of coins, a book that once belonged to my mother—the only thing of hers small enough for me to hide from the guards the night they burnt our house to the ground.
“Lunge, parry, block, and thrust!” She grunts as her arm cuts the motions with a hiss, nightgown stretched wide as her legs shift into place.
“You’ve been practicing!” Thaelan grins. “Good girl! I hereby promote you to first mate.”
“Captain,” she corrects, straightening. “First mates are for pirates and I’m going to be a solider. Just like you.”
She used to beg me to buy her pirate stories from a peddler who remembered life before the war, when the oceans surrounding our island continent were filled with merchants and mercenaries. But pirates lost their appeal the same time I did, which is just as well. The peddler and his stories disappeared months ago.
“And then,” Cadence continues, all seriousness, “I’m going to marry you.”
Thaelan arches his eyebrows and meets my eyes over the top of her head.
“Get dressed,” I say, turning her toward our bureau. That’s another conversation for another day.
“Are we moving again?” Cadence tears off her nightgown after confirming Thaelan can’t see her from behind the bedsheet I hold between us—to ensure that I’m not peeking, either. But I do peek as she struggles into her dress, mourning the bones that show through her skin when she bends forward. Like its limes, the Brim grows its children stilted; too much dirt and not enough sunlight.
“Something like that,” I say, buttoning the back of her dress as she holds her tangled curls up and out of the way. I’ve barely finished before she twists out of reach, grabbing Thaelan’s hand instead of my own. She’s too big but he still swings her on his back, leading the charge downstairs, into the night.
Thaelan boldly marches through the street whereas I resist the urge to stick to the shadows as we head into the sleepier merchant neighborhood of the Ridge, to a narrow alley hidden from any shadow crows by the close-knit corners of the buildings that frame its length. Setting Cadence down, Thaelan casts a glance over his shoulder before he pries open a drainage grate. After waiting a beat to ensure no one heard, he turns to me, hand outstretched and an expectant smile on his face.
All at once, I realize what we’re doing. Cadence stands above a sewer drain in the middle of the night while I clutch our entire life in a tattered bag. The giddy haze of Thaelan’s kisses fades, replaced with the reality of the guards I can hear patrolling the streets.
Thaelan’s smile evaporates. He starts to shake his head even before I speak. Standing, he frames my face in his hands. “Don’t you dare change your mind,” he says. “Not now, not after you said yes.”
“But we have nothing—”
“I have everything I need.”
“You need more than me,” I whisper, plaintive.
He stares at me, expression dimming into that familiar resignation. Jaw clenched, Thaelan releases me and steps back, rubbing his mouth with one hand.
“Tomorrow,” I try, forcing my voice bright. “We’ll go tomorrow. You’ll have time to pack, to plan—”
“I’ll go with you,” Cadence says. She steps forward. “I’ll go right now.”
Thaelan exhales softly and reaches for her, hugging her as tight as he can. “I know,” he says.
Candlelight twinkles in the distance and my stomach tightens with sudden longing. The women I work with often joke about what life is like in the streets above us, but we never talk about ourselves. There’s no point. Life in the Brim holds no mystery. We’ll either die slowly like my father, or all at once, like the boy from the raid the night before.
I can’t see the stars from here but it doesn’t matter: I don’t want to make wishes to the gods or their sainted virtues anymore. I want to be strong enough to survive all on my own, and staying in the Brim will kill me. It will kill Cadence.
Decided, I step around Thaelan, lowering myself into the sewer grate, landing with a soft splash in an inch of brackish water. Craning my head, I meet Thaelan’s startled gaze.
“Are you coming?” I ask.
His grin is contagious; I can’t help but smile back as he lowers Cadence into my arms and splashes down beside us, stretching to drag the grate back into place. Cadence clings to his side and he dutifully carries her as we hurry uphill, toward the castle and its dungeons. As we reach the mouth of the tunnel, a clock chimes in the streets overhead.
Thaelan stops and I slam into his back.
He swears, mumbling an apology for his language as he turns to face me. “Head count,” he says, and my stomach falls. In the adrenaline of committing treason, I had forgotten our first enemy: the barracks curfew. Long before Thaelan mapped the tunnels beneath the castle, he mapped all the alleys back to the barracks, timing each route in order to maximize every last second of our stolen time together.
We forgot to watch the clock.
Swallowing hard, Thaelan surveys the tunnel left and right, debating. “We’ll just keep going,” he says at last, lowering Cadence to her feet. She resists, clutching his arm. “They’ll search the taverns and brothels before they think to look down here. We have a head start.”
“But they will come looking for you. No. Make head count,” I say, almost relieved. “Grab whatever you can and come back. Weapons. Money. Food. You’ve snuck out a million times before.”
Thaelan nods as he pulls me closer, his arm hooked around my neck. “Keep going,” he whispers in my ear. “I won’t be far behind. I’ll find you, Faris.” Then, even quieter, “I love you.”
I hug him back, tight as I can, before he pulls away. Handing me the crumpled page of coded directions, he pries Cadence loose and backs away, flashing us another smile, the kind that makes his dimple emerge, before he turns away.
Cadence takes a step after him. “Wait! I want to go with you!”
I hold her back, struggling to read the lines on the vellum in the murky light. “You have to stay with me.”
“A captain never abandons her general,” Cadence growls, breaking loose, splashing out of reach. War blazes across her face as she glares at me: He loves me but didn’t even say good-bye to her.
“Cadence,” I warn.
She starts running.
Swearing, I follow, Thaelan’s directions balled in one hand. “Slow down! You’ll get lost!” We both will.
She doesn’t listen, calling after Thaelan, her voice too loud, too obvious; someone will hear us. Fear rolls down my back, icy as the water at my feet. “Cadence, please.”
She disappears ahead of me. My frantic footsteps drown out the sound of hers and I stop, straining for some indication of which way she went. More drainage grates curve ahead, but the branching tunnels around me are all dark, leading across the city and beneath the castle. I glance to the paper in my fist, useless now, without my sister.
Mother of a sainted virgin.
Biting the inside of my cheek, I force myself to take a deep breath, to calm down, to listen. Water splashes ahead of me, but it’s steady, pouring in from somewhere else. To my right, an irregular tempo. Footsteps.
Relieved, I turn the corner, bracing my hand to the wall as I peer into a shroud of darkness. “Cadence?”
A match strikes and I flinch away, holding a hand against the light. A face sharpens into view. A young man, with bright blue eyes and dark hair that falls forward, skimming the sharp angle of his cheek.
Alistair Pembrough. The king’s executioner.
Fear freezes me in place. Since inheriting the position last winter, Alistair has rarely made an appearance beyond the castle walls, but his reputation permeates every inch of the city. This is the boy who grew up in these tunnels, furtive as a shadow, the boy born to kill. When his eyes lock with mine above the flickering light, something flashes across his face. Recognition.
How can he possibly know who I am?
His match burns out as Cadence finally answers my call. Her voice is muffled but shrill, not far ahead. A lower baritone joins her, low and pleading. Thaelan. He came back for her, which means he’s not going to make head count.
We have to run.
Cadence isn’t the only one to benefit from Thaelan’s training, but temporarily robbed of my night vision, my attack on Alistair is blind, instinctive.
Accurate. I hit something soft and Alistair grunts in surprise. Emboldened, I strike again, higher than before, connecting to something better. Bone.
His hands skate past my arm and tighten around the strap of my bag. “Wait—”
Abandoning the bag, I run headlong into darkness, ignoring Alistair’s shouts behind me. The ground slopes up and light appears ahead, soft and diffusive. The dungeon. Thaelan, Cadence, Avinea—
I skid to a stop before they notice me. Pressing myself flat to the wall, I backtrack until I reach a tunnel that splits to the left at the level of my knees, pulling myself up and out of sight. Moments later, Alistair sloshes past me, a hand pressed to his nose, my bag around his shoulder.
“There’re too many tunnels,” one of the guards calls by way of greeting.
“Send the rats,” another suggests.
“Whatever you have to do,” Alistair snaps in return.
Shadow rats. The alley-dwelling cousins of the king’s shadow crows. If they find us, the guards will descend. If they bite us, we’ll be marked by magic and the king’s provost will sniff us out no matter where we hide.
Either way, I can’t stay here.
I double back the way I came, but when I reach the sloping tunnel punctuated with sewer grates, I pause, mind shuffling through Thaelan’s maps. Where would he go? Where do I go? His directions got lost somewhere in the dark between here and Alistair Pembrough, and wandering into these tunnels without some guidance would be suicide.
Downhill, I think; find an exit. Thaelan has Cadence and he’ll know what to do. He’ll know where to find me, unless—
Unless it was easier for them to keep going. What if they’re already on their way to Avinea?
What if they escape and I don’t?
I stop, seized with an envy so sharp it cuts the breath out of me. Turning, I put a hand to the wall, debating the risk of calling for Thaelan and alerting the guards.
But then I hear them coming. The shadow rats.
I run, gaining speed as I slope downhill, stopping beneath the first grate I find, but I’m shorter than Thaelan, and my fingertips barely graze the metal. Not good enough.
I keep moving, dodging debris and floating garbage until there, ahead, a slurry of rubble where the tunnel wall has partially collapsed, forming an unsteady stair-step. From there, I’m able to shoulder a grate open and hoist myself up, not even bothering to look for witnesses before I’m scrambling to my knees on the rough cobblestones above. An instant later, shadow rats flood the tunnel below me, their smoldering bodies hissing steam as they charge through the water, herded by a guard with a torch in one hand, a sword in the other.
Shaking, I find my feet and collect my bearings. Alive. Unharmed.
Thaelan has Cadence, I tell myself. He’ll keep her safe. They’ll make it to Avinea and one day, I’ll find them again. No matter how long it takes.
It doesn’t take long.
Within days, Thaelan hangs from the castle walls, cut open and left as carrion for the birds and a warning for the rest of us. Over the next few weeks, guards bolt down every drainage gate in the kingdom and fit iron bars over every open culvert.
We live in a kingdom carved out of stone, protected from the plague through the mercy of our king. But we are also hostages here.
And nobody leaves Brindaigel.