Shay cursed the wind.
Her boots sloshed through muddy puddles, disturbing the breeding insects within, and they chased after her in an angry swarm. Swatting the gnats away, she spat and wiped her brow. Night did not bring any coolness to the thick, humid air, and the wind that had journeyed with the caravan through the Silverback Mountain pass, throwing dust into their eyes, now deserted them. Even a slight breeze would have brought some reprieve as they ascended the steep hill. Nothing came, and Shay would’ve waved her fist at the sky if she hadn’t been too tired to lift it.
A week had passed since their caravan set out from the edge of the Kingdom of Wintercress, headed east toward the island city of Storm’s Quarry. After trekking through all manner of terrain from dawn until dusk the past six days, Shay had slowly grown immune to the braying of the mules and the snipes from Cressian soldiers. Though much of the caravan, numbering nearly fifty people, was made up of craftsmen and -women, there were a dozen soldiers assigned from the Wintercress army who were ostensibly in charge. More joined them when they had passed a Cressian stronghold called Eagle’s Reach earlier that day just before the grasslands turned to marsh. The fortress stood not far from Storm’s Quarry, maybe half a day’s walk, according to the whispers among the tired travelers, and Shay had found herself grinning stupidly at the thought of sleeping on something other than a tree root that night. The men from Eagle’s Reach stood tall with a sense of self-importance that rivaled lily-handed nobles, and their stronghold, a dark stone tower rising out of the marshland, stood with the same brashness. No one was allowed to touch their packs and the valuable compound that they carried, and more than one curious craftsman had been pushed away with heavy gauntlets.
For Shay and Jeta, there was no patriotic loyalty to keep their tempers in check. Luckily, her forgemaster was not as quick to anger as Shay, whose own temper often simmered just beneath her skin, igniting with little provocation.
The middle-aged woman walked beside her, uncomplaining of the heat or the hardship despite the thick leather jerkin she wore. Jeta Forgemaster was one of the best iron smiths in the eastern lands, and her skills had been contracted, and not cheaply at that, for the work that awaited them in Storm’s Quarry. Her blades never broke, and her shields never failed under onslaught. Shay was her apprentice of these past ten years, and she still did not know a tenth of what the forgemaster did.
“Look ahead,” Jeta said in her gruff whisper, nodding toward the crest of the hill.
Shay slowed down as she came to the top. The rim of the valley stretched out several leagues from either side, running along in a near perfect circle around the inland sea. She’d heard once that a star fell here, its impact creating the depression and the precious stones that lay beneath the calm waters. And there in the center, at the end of a narrow bridge spanning the sea’s width, it stood, rising like an ethereal guardian in the moonlight, the lord of its domain.
The island of Storm’s Quarry.
Even from here, nearly a league out, the citystate glowed under the stars, its white marble walls towering above the waters. The rest of the city rose up behind them, five tiers, each layer adding to the city’s height and majesty. Over one hundred thousand souls lived within those thick walls, walls that protected them against floodwaters and outside attacks. Now, even from here, the great gap in the wall shone plain, its ragged edges catching the light of the guard posts stationed along it. Storm’s Quarry glistened like a newborn just come from the birthing waters of a Great Storm; only this time, it had not emerge unscathed.
Soldiers and craftsmen alike let out whoops of joy at the sight of their destination. The city’s Duke had promised good lodgings and better pay to any who answered their call for aid. Wintercress had sponsored several caravans like this one, and the travelers were no doubt looking forward to a warm bowl of soup and a bed.
Shay did not share their enthusiasm. Her heartbeat fell further and further away until she could not feel or hear it, or anything else. The world moved before her like a painting as she stared at the place she had once called home.
“Ten years is a long time.” Jeta came up beside her.
She touched her arm, a rare gesture of affection from the stoic woman. “You know you did have not to come. You can still turn back.”
She managed a small grin. “And who’d look after your old bones?” When Jeta’s expression did not even crack, she let the mirth slip from her voice. “I’ll be fine. I—I did not think it would affect me like this. But it won’t continue. It’s just an island of stone.” Shay kept her voice soft, hoping Jeta wouldn’t hear the trembles in it. She forced herself to keep her eyes open. Closing them would mean seeing the night she was taken out that gate played out over and over again in vivid detail.
She drew a deep breath. The air tasted musty, like doughy bread rested in the sun for too long. “I can handle this.” No amount of flashbacks or fear would prevent her from standing by the side of her forgemaster, the woman she owed everything. She was not about to abandon Jeta on this job just because she had some past here. And if that past was another reason she had insisted on accompanying her…well, it didn’t matter.
Jeta said nothing. She hitched her pack up on her shoulders, its seams straining from the many tools she carried inside. Those were her best tools, extensions of herself, and Shay knew she’d sooner cut off an arm than let another care for them.
Together, master and apprentice descended the steep edge of valley, to where the seawaters met land, and stepped onto the stone bridge. They brushed passed mules that had to be coaxed one step at a time onto the bridge. Shay felt much the same as the nervous animals, but she tried not to let on.
Jeta knew, of course. “We’ll be put up in the third tier,” Jeta said, quietly. “You will not have to see them.”
“I know.” Normally, Shay would’ve added a line about how she was no longer a child and did not need to be coddled like one. She was there, after all, to look after Jeta. Tonight, however, she felt quite small under the stars and the rough glares of Cressian soldiers.
One shoved his way past, forcing Shay to the edge of the bridge.
“Out of the way for His Majesty’s troops,” he trumpeted as she clung to the banister.
Seawater sprayed her face, cooling it off, the salt stinging slightly at the edge of her eyes. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about your king!” she spat. A bit louder than she intended, for a hush settled over this stretch of the caravan. One of the granite smiths who walked next to them put a hand over her mouth. An older man behind her, a glass wright, muttered, “Might’ve known it’d be an outworker who’d provoke ’em.”
The soldier stopped. His uniform, a white overcoat trimmed in green, had long since been painted brown by the wind, rain, and mud. Only the pistol clipped to his left side and the saber at his right denoted him as belonging to the armies of Wintercress.
“Did I hear correctly?” he asked without turning around. One hand went to his saber. “On this, a caravan of the King’s good grace, did I hear someone slander his name?”
“Well, I hear Storm’s Quarry has good physicians,” Shay said with half a smirk. Heat grew in her chest. “Perhaps visiting one to get your ears checked is one of the first things you should do when we arrive.”
“Careful,” Jeta said behind her.
“They’ve been pushing us around the entire trip. We owe them no allegiance, and I won’t have them continue this nonsense when we’re in the city’s walls.” Shay’s hands were clenched at her sides. In her chest, the burning sensation settled in her heart and grew hotter. It sparked, rubbing against the inside of her skin.
The soldier finally turned. Ahead, the rest of the caravan slowed, people realizing that their section was stopped. Curious gazes fixed themselves upon Shay and the soldier. Behind her, whispers spread.
“I could have you arrested for that, Apprentice! Or I could be merciful, if—”
She did not wait to hear the if. “We are not Wintercress citizens, and we are no longer in your territory. Your rule does not extend everywhere, no matter how many strongholds you throw up. Whatever authority you think you have, you don’t have it over me.” She raised an empty hand. Beneath the surface, her finger trembled with heat.
“You threaten me with air?” He unsheathed his saber. “Would you like to see what a real blade is capable of?”
The fire in her chest grew in intensity. Her fingers itched. Shay smiled. “I know that better than you do.”
“Enough.” Jeta cut in, standing between them. The soldier took half a step back from the towering, heavyset woman. She had a hatchet in her belt, and over the course of the journey he had seen her split logs thicker than him with it. “Shay, enough.”
Shay lowered her arm. The heat that pounded within her cooled, only slightly.
Jeta turned to the soldier. “Think about what you are doing.” She didn’t elaborate. She didn’t need to. The iron expression in her eyes, the faded red scar that curled underneath them, the circling black tattoos of the Blood Hawk tribe up her arms—the soldier swallowed and retreated, muttering something about the chain of command.
Shay’s smiled broadened but quickly disappeared when Jeta rounded on her.
“Don’t be a fool,” Jeta said, face mere handsbreadths from Shay’s. Shay looked down, unable to meet her mentor’s steely gaze. The heat flickered back, nearly gone, save for the warmth that always lived within her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
Jeta started walking with the rest of the caravan. Shay followed her, trying to think of ways to get her in a good mood once more. Perhaps she could offer to stay in and work nights for a week. She hated when she disappointed her mentor, the woman who had taken her in, who taught her everyone she knew. The woman who she was following back to the nightmare of her childhood out of loyalty. Being this close to the city brought out something in her, and Shay had promised Jeta that she could control her emotions. She had promised herself.
For over a decade, this city had haunted her, a past that sank its barbed talons into her soul, refusing to let her move on with her life. No longer, Shay had decided when the opportunity to join the Cressian caravan arose. When she and Jeta fulfilled their contract and left the city, she would be leaving the baggage of her past behind for good.
The caravan’s pace quickened with the end so close. Not even the gnats could keep up with the travelers, so bent on getting into a real bed for the rest of the night. And suddenly, they were at the gate.
Shay looked up. The iron gates rose above them, melting into marble stone. Men ran along the wall top, shouting to one another. Their yells carried a note of glee. How long since a caravan of aid has come? Shay wondered. And how bad is it in there really?
She only had to glance to her left, farther down the great outer wall of Storm’s Quarry, to see the ragged edges of the destruction. A section of the wall had been blown away, leaving nothing but rubble in its wake. She estimated it to be about fifteen paces long. Once, when she was no more than a child, the wall of Storm’s Quarry was the edge of the world to her, an indomitable presence as constant and impossible as the sky. To see that same wall in this state—Shay shook herself, trying to rid her mind of the strangeness.
The stories of how the city’s annual floodwaters had receded on the solstice had spread through the land. The Stormspeaker of the Nomori people had given them a prophecy of the sea’s recession, the end to the misery brought on by the floodwaters of this season’s Great Storm. Her words only became truth when a madman took it upon himself to destroy the wall, flooding the city and the mines with the Kyanite Sea. The Mark of Recession, a sun chiseled into the marble beside the gate, shone in the moonlight. For centuries, it had governed the water levels, its appearance signaling safety and the reopening of the city. What had the price been to see the Mark revealed from beneath the floodwaters this time?
More shouts, and the gates began to creak. As Storm’s Quarry opened to them, a smell which had been masked by the saltiness of the sea air grew, one of death and human waste. Some in the caravan gasped, having never seen the grand staircase that ran up to the fifth tier and the Duke’s palace. On either side, the city sprawled out, stone homes stacked against each other, separated by narrow streets.
Shay made herself put one boot in front of the other. As the Wintercress soldiers met with the Duke’s Guard of Storm’s Quarry, the rest of the caravan was being led to their housing up the endless staircase.
Unable to keep her eyes down, she looked off to the right, to a small courtyard, still steeped in water, where a dead fountain stood. The burning returned. At first soft, then growing in ferocity until only the fragile barrier of her skin kept the inferno at bay. Shay stopped and stared at the entrance to the Nomori tier, where a few gaunt faces looked to the caravan with hope. Hands clenched at her side, she stared until they turned and left.
This was once my home. Soft flames, too small for any observer to see, raced up and down her arms, gathering into the ghost of a sword in each hand. This is where my demons lie.
Nadya Gabori hit the ground hard for the fourth time that morning. Grunting, she sat up and retrieved her practice rapier. Its blade looked much the worse for wear, dented and bent once again. She grabbed the blade and straightened it back out, bending the metal so it looked passable.
“Again,” her father said.
“It’s not too late to back out of this, is it?” she asked, getting to her feet.
Shadar Gabori levered his own unblemished rapier at her. “You asked for the training.”
“I must’ve hit my head before I did.” She took up the forward stance he had taught her, blade ready.
Without warning, her father stepped forward, rapier flashing in the morning sun.
Nadya parried the first strike, meeting his blade before the edge could touch her. She kept her muscles taut and under control. Just the precise amount of strength needed to deflect, nothing more. Half a breath later, Shadar moved again, pivoting on his heels. His rapier broke away and came down at her shoulder.
The cramped building, once a storehouse but now a crumbling structure filled with rubble, did not give her much room to maneuver. Nadya stepped to the side, narrowly missing a water-filled hole in the floor. The hilt of her rapier collided with her father’s blade as she brought it up. Metal hit her skin, stinging slightly. Nadya gathered herself, ready to make her own attack, when Shadar’s blade flashed once more, and suddenly she was holding nothing.
In three steps, he had disarmed her. Nadya gritted her teeth. This fight wasn’t quite a fair bout. He was a master of the rapier with the preternatural fighting ability of the Nomori men, and captain of the Duke’s Guard to boot. Every movement came as naturally to him as breathing. For her, on the other hand, most of her concentration was taken up by controlling herself and her blade.
It was hard to believe she’d once envied Lord Marko, the Duke’s son, for the private lessons he received from her father. Now getting them near-daily herself, it was all Nadya could do not to scream in frustration.
“Do you see the mistakes you’re making?” Shadar wiped the blade of his rapier on the corner of his tunic, polishing off some invisible smudge.
Nadya sighed and retrieved hers. “Besides not using everything that’s available to me?” She shook her head. “I know, I’m thinking too much. But I have to think. If I don’t…” If I don’t, I lose control.
And people have died because of that.
“No excuses. We are training so Nadya Gabori will be able to win a fight, not the Iron Phoenix.” Shadar’s tone took on the peculiar hesitation that always came when he mentioned the name Storm’s Quarry had bestowed upon her masked self, a vigilante who was now equally feared and revered throughout the tiers. It seemed impossible that it had only been mere months since she’d first donned the gray cloak for her nightly adventures on the city’s rooftops, her only peace in a life of failing to be a normal Nomori woman. She felt like a lifetime had passed since she had rescued her father from an explosion at the headquarters of the Duke’s Guard, emerging unscathed from the flames and earning herself the name.
Her father seemed all right with her nivasi nature now, though how much of that was a brave face for her benefit, Nadya didn’t know. Shadar, like all the Nomori people, had been taught to fear and hate the nivasi, the rare Nomori whose innate gifts were powerful and uncontrollable. To learn his daughter was one, especially the one who committed a massacre at the Duke’s open address, was not something one grew used to. Even if she was being controlled by another at the time.
“You’re struggling because it’s hard,” Shadar said, his tone strong once more.
Nadya pushed her darker thoughts away. “You should become a scholar, Papa, with those incredible insights.”
“No,” he said more sternly, “it’s hard for you. When was the last time physical training was difficult for you? With all your gifts, you are used to everything coming naturally. Strength and speed do, but skill does not. You want control. No one is born with control. You have to learn it, to earn it.” He gripped her shoulder. “You’ve come far in two months. Now, again.”
Sighing, Nadya returned to her stance.
She could beat him, she knew that. Maybe not in an actual fight to the death, though the time they did that it had come out fairly even. But in a sparring match, she could win. She was stronger than him, faster too. Than anyone she’d ever met. Her nivasi blood, a perversion of the Nomori gift many would say, gave her physical abilities beyond any kind of training. She could hit through stone, leap across rooftops, but as Shadar attacked once more, she could not master this stars-cursed parry maneuver.
After about ten seconds, Nadya landed on her back again, and Shadar held out a hand to her. “I think that’s probably enough for today. I’m expected at the Guardhouse this afternoon.”
She took his hand carefully and stood. “Thanks, Papa. Send a pigeon when you have time again.”
“You know,” he said slowly, belting on his rapier, “you might come home. Then we won’t have to engage in this hassle in order to continue your training.”
Nadya’s throat grew dry, her arms heavy. She turned toward the wall. Large chunks of stone were missing, the edges of the gaps charred. Outside, the street below was full of Nomori and Erevans, all heading toward the aid stations to receive what little medicine and food and clean water there was in Storm’s Quarry. Many more would boil the tainted floodwaters and eat roasted rat and pray to the Protectress not to fall victim to the scouring sickness.
“If you spoke with her, perhaps you could mend what has been broken,” Shadar said, coming to stand beside her. He put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
“She is afraid of me.” Nadya stared straight ahead. If she spoke with enough detachment, the words could not hurt, or at least that’s what she tried to convince herself of. “She knows what I am, and she hates me for it. There’s no fixing that.”
“You’re our daughter, and nothing will change that.”
Grateful as she was to her father for his acceptance, Nadya knew he was wrong, and his words, their optimism, hurt. “If my nivasi blood had been discovered ten years ago, it would have definitely changed everything. I was not the only one, you know, just the only one who survived.” Her childhood friend Shay had disappeared after exhibiting an unusual gift, and her family denied her very existence to this day.
Shadar sighed. “Some things…the Elders, we, our people are not always right. Your mother is not always right either.
The past can’t be undone, but look to the future.” He cupped her chin so that she would look at him. “Promise me you’ll think about it?”
Nadya swallowed. Her father defied the Elders by continuing to love her, and she knew how much he risked in that defiance. This was the least she could do. “I will, Papa.”
“Good.” He smiled. “Let me see you to the aid post. Make sure you get something to eat.”
“I’m fine,” she protested. There were plenty of citizens, Erevan and Nomori, who needed whatever aid came to the city far more than she did. Though her stomach gave a low growl in protest. “I can borrow food from the fourth tier.”
Shadar sighed and held out wooden ration tokens. “Stealing is still stealing, even if it is from those who can afford it. And you need to be careful. The rooftops are being watched at night. There are many who want to see the Iron Phoenix hang, thinking his death will bring some measure of hope to the city.”
The thought brought sourness up Nadya’s throat as she took the tokens. As ugly a notion as it was, she couldn’t exactly blame the city. There were many orphans, widows, and widowers because of actions committed by her hands, if not her mind.
Outside, a cry went up in the streets, saving her from having to respond. “Caravan! Caravan from Wintercress!” Dozens of people raced east toward the gate, clogging the road.
“I thought a Wintercress caravan just arrived a few days ago? At night?” Nadya asked.
“They did, bringing craftsmen, water treatments, and food. Wintercress has been incredibly generous,” Shadar said, a low growl entering his voice.
“You don’t sound pleased. We need those supplies. A third of the city has come down with the scouring sickness, and only the Cressian compound keeps our waters potable.” She saw the starvation and disease firsthand every day as she walked the streets of the city.
“Of course, and I’m grateful.” He looked out the window with a frown. “Have you heard anything from Kesali about the negotiations with Wintercress?”
“No.” In truth, she had not heard anything from Kesali since just after the solstice. The Nomori Stormspeaker and betrothed of Marko, the Duke’s son, was busy keeping the city alive alongside her intended. Lord Marko was a maddeningly friendly Erevan, and as much as Nadya had tried to hate him for taking Kesali away from her, his good nature made it impossible. He never treated her and other Nomori with the disdain common among upper tier Erevans, and reluctantly, she had grown closer to him during the fight against Gedeon and the events of the Blood Sun Solstice. Despite her friendship with both Marko and Kesali, Nadya had avoided going anywhere near the palace for months. Kesali had found out about her secret identity during the fight on the solstice, and she did not want to see what time had done to her opinion of Nadya.
No matter how much not seeing the woman she loved hurt.
“And I have not spoken to Duke Isyanov or Lord Marko about the negotiations. Wintercress has not been the staunchest of allies in the past. Their stronghold just beyond the Kyanite Sea was built as a challenge to Storm’s Quarry. Now, they wish to help us, clean our waters, bring food and workers and drop them at our feet.”
“With the city stricken with the scouring sickness, we are short on both of those things. All the more reason to be grateful for what is sent.” Nadya headed toward the stairs, but Shadar’s arm caught her.
“More caravans mean more Wintercress soldiers. By the Protectress, I hope they mean well. But it does mean reinforcements for the Guard. I meant what I said, Nadezhda. Do not wear the cloak, and think carefully where you go after dark.”
Gently, she pulled away. “I know, Papa, just like I know I can get away from any guardsmen who find me.”
“The point is not whether you can escape. It is whether you can escape without hurting them, or worse.” Shadar’s voice was flat, but Nadya heard the roiling emotions underneath. She was his daughter, but those were his men, and he desperately wanted to avoid a collision between the two.
“Papa, I can do it.” It wasn’t a lie, though her surety was. “I know—”
His rapier interrupted her, drawn so fast even she barely saw it before the blade pressed up against her throat. Not hard enough to draw blood, but firm enough that it would not easily be dislodged. Shadar’s eyes held hers. He said nothing, but the challenge was there: If you’re right, then prove it.
Nadya swallowed. She tried to move her arms. One was pinned behind her back, one held by Shadar. She could throw him off, but it would have to be hard enough so he wouldn’t have the opportunity to slice at her throat. Not that he would. But to throw him that hard would be to break his back.
Marko would have been able to get away from her father, along with most Nomori swordsmen. She could not, not without hurting her father. She looked down.
Shadar lowered his rapier, point made. “I just want you to be careful.”
“I will.” She tried to keep the despair that twined around her chest out of her voice. How was she to help her struggling city if she lacked the control to act without hurting people? As she left their secret training building and followed her father through the crowd, Nadya took several deep breaths.
There were many among the Nomori, and now the Erevans of Storm’s Quarry, who believed every nivasi was destined for madness. History spoke of Durriken the Butcher, and now of Gedeon the Chaos-maker. Both lost their minds and brought endless bloodshed to the city. Some of that bloodshed had come at the hands of the Iron Phoenix, her mind supplanted by Gedeon’s dark power in order to slaughter attendees at the Duke’s address on the eve of the solstice. She winced, fighting back the flashes of carnage, the sounds of bones breaking and children’s screams. Gedeon had tried to force the fate of the nivasi upon her, and many in the city regarded the Iron Phoenix no differently than the Butcher and the Chaos-maker.
Nadya straightened. She was going to fight against that destiny with everything she had. Gedeon was not going to win from the grave. Her seal of the Protectress, a metal flower engraved on a band around her upper arm, grew warm. She would master control over her mind and her powers before the Iron Phoenix brought any more suffering to a city rife with it.
This, she swore.
People flooded the bottom tier of Storm’s Quarry, anxious to see the caravan and the supplies and laborers it brought. After saying good-bye to her father, Nadya found herself stuck in the masses as she tried to head back to her home.
Home. Not exactly anyone’s Natsia, their Nomori long way home. A burned-out structure, once a feedstore, now just the blackened stones. It was quiet and empty, and the patchy roof kept out the worst of the summer sun. It sat nestled in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the second tier of the city, once belonging to the least of the Erevans. Now, with large swaths of the lower tiers crumbling, disease-ridden, and uninhabitable, the lines that once separated the races so strictly had faded to smudges, and a Nomori girl like herself wasn’t given two glances as she walked toward the stairs.
In one way, Nadya thought as she slipped between bodies and through crowds, Gedeon and Levka Puyatin, the orchestrators of the solstice’s tragedies, had utterly failed. Prior to the falling of the wall, the Erevans and the Nomori had been at each other’s throats, circling one another and wishing death on their neighbors. Now she passed an Erevan man, no older than twenty, helping a Nomori woman clear rubble from around what had once been a public well. Blue-gray patches mottled their skin, the early gift of the scouring sickness. Such blunt tragedy had a way of erasing hate, or at least putting it to the side, as the need to survive trumped all.
It should not have taken the end of all we know to have peace, she thought sadly as she passed huddled bodies clutching smelly rags, their boney wrists peeking into the sunlight. Dark scabs riddled pale skin. And if we survive this, there’s nothing to say it won’t all go back to the way it was. When the Nomori people had settled in Storm’s Quarry a generation ago at the Duke’s request, their strange customs and abilities earned them the scorn and fear of the native Erevans. No matter that the Stormspeaker of the time, Kesali’s mother, had saved the city from a Great Storm. It seemed that nothing less than impending mutual destruction, brought on by the Blood Sun Solstice, could bring uneasy peace to the city.
“Caravan!” The word rose in Erevo and Nomori, cried out in relief.
Elbows thrust out around her as people clamored to the edge of the main street. Guardsmen held on to the perimeter, escorting the line of mules, wagons, and weary travelers to the rail, where the new supplies would be taken to the palace storehouses and distributed among the tiers.
Nadya was a stone in the mists of a swirling river of bodies. Any who tried to push past her found her a curiously immovable target. She tried to ignore the surrounding chaos as she studied the faces of the Wintercress caravan come to her city. Shadar’s uncertainty about the aid rang in her ears.
None of the craftmasters, laborers, and soldiers looked particularly threatening, their grim expressions and curt tones in their unfamiliar Cressian tongue more likely born of fatigue than anything else. Except…
Nadya’s breath caught in her throat. One woman rode at the head of the caravan. She passed the swarms of Storm’s Quarry citizens without expression, her eyes taking in the desperation all around her.
This woman was undoubtedly in charge. Her blond hair was cut short, framing her pale face and sparkling eyes. Light eyes, so blue as to be almost silver. They shone as she rode past where Nadya stood. The Wintercress leader wore fine white linens, a half skirt, half trouser combination that the Erevan courtier ladies wore when out riding. Her mare, silky white despite the long journey, arched its neck as if it knew it was higher bred than any of the crowds in awe over it. Amidst the dirt of the Nomori tier, she appeared as a beacon of bright.
The leader leaned over to the only other person on a horse, a man riding carefully two paces behind her, and spoke. Nadya strained against the noise of the crowd. She took a breath and calmed down. Slowly, she filtered away the crying children and muttered prayers lifted up to the Protectress and storm gods alike. The noise receded, muffled.
She spoke in Cressian, but Nadya caught the Duke’s name. The man addressed the leader as Aster, preceded by what was no doubt an honorific. Aster smirked just before she rode out of Nadya’s line of sight, and one word formed on her lips. “Braka.”
Her seal of the Protectress prickled. It could have been her own unease, projected on her still uncertain relationship with the Nomori deity. But Nadya could not deny the bad feeling this Aster gave her. Suddenly, her father did not sound so paranoid.
But the aid was needed, and the wells of Storm’s Quarry could not be purified on hope alone. Though the melons and rice of the caravan’s supplies brought wide-eyed children to its edge, it was the compound, held tightly by Cressian soldiers, that was truly so valuable, so desperately needed. She watched the end of the caravan wind out of sight. When the last guardsmen retreated, the streets flooded with the crowd, and Nadya allowed herself to be swept up in it.
She climbed the great staircase to the second tier. Turning off the main road and onto the narrow side street that led to her little dwelling, Nadya heard the shouts.
She swept her gaze over the street once more. Here, it was near empty now. Those fortunate enough to be able-bodied enough for work were at the job, and the rest conserved their energy and tried to stay out of the sun. Every mouthful of water was another chance to catch the scouring sickness, no matter how much of the compound Wintercress provided, and people stayed away from the wells as if the ghosts of the solstice haunted them.
She did not always have that luxury.
Nadya slipped in through the door to her new home and sighed. Her pallet, straw covered in old clothes, was tucked away in one corner. Next to it was her cloak, carefully rolled up, and the few supplies she had. She suppressed a few pangs for her real home, the one in the Nomori tier behind her mother’s jewelry shop. Now, this was all she had. The rest of the meager space was cleared for the exercises she did every day, except for the back corner, which still held all the baskets and boxes that were here when she staked a claim on the place.
The bucket that held her purified well water lay in the middle of the shack on its side. She grimaced and picked it up.
Looks like the new shipment came from Wintercress just in time, she thought, heading back out to the nearest well that still ran with water, however tainted.
Her constitution meant she had little to worry from the scouring sickness, but for the rest of the city, from the Duke to the lowliest second-tier beggar, every drop of water could hold death beneath its surface. None of the sages or advisors at the palace, according to her father, knew what kind of taint the Blood Sun Solstice had wrought upon the city’s wells. The only thing that kept the sickness from overrunning Storm’s Quarry was the compound that Wintercress created and guarded carefully.
She rounded the corner to where the well, a hollowed-out squat block of stone, sat in the middle of a small courtyard. Prior to the Blood Sun Solstice, the line of people with buckets and cartons never seemed to fade at wells like this. Children would dip their hands into the cool, sweet water pumped up from the fresh reservoir deep below the mines of Storm’s Quarry.
Two tall figures stood before a shorter one. A boy, Nadya realized, heart dropping. Erevan, thin and scruffy, holding a tiny tin cup. And standing between him and the well were two Cressian soldiers.
Oh, damn it all! One of them held a pistol, waving it at the boy. Both were pale, with the blond hair and light eyes of Wintercress. They wore white uniforms much like those of the soldiers of the caravan.
And the woman in charge of them.
Leave it alone, Nadya, she thought as she made to do the exact opposite.
“The well is free to all who live here.” She strode up, putting herself forcefully between the boy and the soldiers. “Is there a reason you guard this place?”
Her nose tickled with an odd scent, sharp and earthy, but the breath of the Cressian soldiers masked it as one leaned down until his face practically touched hers.
“Nomori, huh? Can you understand? You need to stand aside. We are conducting Wintercress business, under the authority of Her Ladyship, Councillor Aster.” His Erevo was heavily accented. Both men were Cressian, so blond their hair almost shone white.
The Cressians of Wintercress and the Erevans of Storm’s Quarry had been a single people in ages past. Now, these Cressian men were as different from the Erevans of Storm’s Quarry as from the Nomori. These soldiers looked capable, though. Corded muscles ran underneath the neat overcoats, somehow still shining white despite the filth of Storm’s Quarry that surrounded them. It was as if they stood outside Nadya’s reality.
She had a mere moment to make her decision, but it was already made. This was her life, her home. Broken and sick as it might be, Nadya would not allow strangers to trample all over it. She could stand for her city in this small way. Without the cloak. Crossing her arms, Nadya made no move to leave. “This is a public well of Storm’s Quarry,” she said in flawless Erevo, “not a stronghold of Wintercress. Conduct your business, but do not keep the thirsty from its waters.”
They blinked in surprise. Whatever Cressians knew of the Nomori, much of it was probably wrong.
“Stand back, or you will spend the next fortnight behind prison bars,” the taller one said, brandishing his saber. “And pretty girls like you rarely do well there.”
Perhaps in the barbaric west. “Only the Duke’s Guard has jurisdiction to make arrests,” Nadya said. “So kindly lower your pistol and leave this place.”
“We are soldiers of the Kingdom of Wintercress, ally to Storm’s Quarry, and—”
“And have no jurisdiction in civilian matters,” Nadya interrupted him. “Bring back a troop of the Guard or the written permission of the Duke to take over this well. Then I will go with you. Until that happens, be gone from here and let us have our water.” Iron filled her final words.
The pistol did not lower, but trained itself on Nadya. “You’ll find our authority in Storm’s Quarry is vast, and we will not tolerate Nomori or Erevan interference. You have lost your chance to end this peacefully.” He nodded to his partner. “Restrain her.”
Protectress, will I regret this? “Do not try to hold me. You are about to lose your chance as well.” Her better sense screamed for her to just leave, that a block of stone and piping, one that dished out tainted water most times at that, was not worth what might happen here if she held her ground.
She was never very good at listening to that better sense, probably because it always seemed to come to her in her grandmother’s voice.
The soldier smirked and surged forward, probably an attempt to knock her to the ground.
He ran into her shoulder and got no farther. Nadya kept her breath steady, trying to remember all Shadar’s lessons at once. She held out a hand. “You really do not want to have this fight.” And I don’t either.
“You little braka!” He charged again.
The word clattered upon her ears. Nadya stepped to the side, letting him get even with her. Then her hand darted out and grabbed his collar. The cloth tore down the side, exposing sunburned skin and a white undershirt. She hauled him up. His fist battered at her. She ignored the blows and focused on disarming his other hand. The saber clanged on the stones.
“Demon!” he yelled, punching up into her jaw.
The contact stung hard. Nadya blinked away stars and tried to pin his arm. Keep control, don’t hurt him. Use only what’s necessary. The thoughts flew through her mind in Shadar’s voice. What separates you from Durriken, from Gedeon, is your compassion. Your heart. Feel what they feel and act accordingly. You are not a machine, but a living being, and you are in control of what is yours.
“Let him go!” The other soldier pointed his pistol straight at the boy, who froze, eyes wide.
“Don’t shoot.” Nadya released her grip. The soldier ducked around her, cursing in Cressian under his breath.
“Whatever mad god birthed you, I don’t care,” the other soldier said, his pistol still aimed at the boy. “You do not scare me.” With a crack, the pistol went off.
Slowly, smoke curled out from the barrel, filling the air with the ripe stench of gunpowder and burning flesh. Nadya did not think. All the mantras of control faded from her mind. She was within herself, inhabiting her senses. Pushing off the ground so hard the stone cracked, she leapt. Reaching out, fast as a blur, she came down between the soldier’s smirk and the boy’s fearful cry.
The silence in the wake of the gunshot shattered. Nadya’s hand burned. She bit back a cry, chest heaving. Slowly, she turned toward the Cressian soldiers, holding out her hand, and opened her fist.
A lumpy round of lead lay in her reddened palm, smoking slightly.
How did I…? Nadya’s thoughts fizzled out, not quite comprehending what had happened.
“By the storm,” the boy cursed, creeping around her to peer at her hand.
The faces of the Cressian soldiers had, if possible, gone whiter. The pistol clattered to the ground from shaking fingers. One muttered in rapid Cressian, eyes staring unblinking at the round of lead. The other gaped like a beached fish, silent.
“That word—braka—what does it mean?”
“What?” He gaped. “I—it does not translate.”
“Try.” She added just a touch of force to the syllable.
It was enough. “Insect beneath the boot,” he said, voice trembling.
She sucked in a breath. “I think you should go,” Nadya said calmly, betraying none of the uproar of her thoughts.
One soldier grabbed the arm of the other, and after a few tugs, they disappeared, bits of debris drifting in their wake. One clutched his belt pouch as he ran away.
No one spoke for several moments. Nadya stared at the bullet. Six month ago, she would have never even attempted such a thing, let alone succeeded. A cold feeling rooted itself in her chest despite the heat of the day. Gedeon’s control over her had unlocked the depths of her strength, and even now it frightened her.
What I could have done to those men accidentally…
But you didn’t. She shook herself and pocketed the bullet. You are learning control. You will not fall like the others.
Right now, she needed this day to be over. To be alone in her little hovel, and to just breathe. But that was not currently possible.
“Oh. Oh, gods. Whoa. How’d you do that?” the boy piped up. He looked at Nadya with open-mouthed amazement.
“Practice.” She crossed her arms. “Now, get some water and go back home.”
He was brave. Not many would stand up to someone they had just seen catch a bullet. She saw the slight shakiness at his knees, the hint of a tremor in his voice. Not wanting to scare him further, she said quietly, “We scared those two off, but there will be more. Hanging around here will only cause trouble for you and your family.”
“I ain’t goin’ back!” He scratched at his arm. “Can’t, so don’t make me.”
“Oh.” The mottled skin of the scouring sickness peeked out from under his frayed sleeves. “I understand.” A lump formed in Nadya’s throat. She knelt in front of the boy. “I—I can’t go home either.”
“Why not?” he asked, suspicion dripping from his words.
Because my mother found out my secret and is afraid of me. “Because I betrayed my parents. I kept things from them, and now I cannot be there anymore.”
He scratched at his arm again. Nadya caught the faintest scent of blood. She reached out, and the boy shrank back. “I will not hurt you. Promise.” Slowly, he extended his arm. She took in in her gentlest grasp, being as careful as she could, and drew up the sleeve. Large gray splotches covered his skin, some leaking blood, some pus. Spots like this were among the early symptoms of the scouring sickness. Thousands of people in the city had already fallen ill from the bad water. What started as a rash, sucking the energy out of even the strongest twenty-year-old, reached the lungs after a time, stealing a breath from a person before they could even try to draw it. Lucky for her, disease seem to have as hard of a time hurting her as blades or bullets.
“Ma said, think about the baby and my brothers. Said I
was big enough to fend. Didn’t want anyone else gettin’ sick.”
He sniffed, but Nadya could tell he was doing his best to look stoic.
Anger roared in her ears, and she dropped his arms. How could a parent do this to a sick child? For a disease spread through water, no less. Even Erevans had more sense of kin than this. Perhaps she had been shortsighted to assume the solstice had only brought out the best of the city. For this boy, it had triggered the worst.
“What do I call you?” she asked suddenly.
“My name’s Deathtiger,” he said, face deadly serious.
Nadya choked back a laugh. “I am not calling you that. What’s your real name?”
He shifted from foot to foot. “Puck,” he said so quietly that Nadya doubted anyone else would have heard him.
“Well, Puck, come with me. You’re going to get help, okay?”
He froze. “Don’t want any.”
Despite his protests, she wrapped an arm around his thin shoulders and set out with him. There was no sign of any more Cressian soldiers in the streets she walked quickly through, half steering a squirming Puck, as she made her way to the local outpost of the Duke’s Guard. They did pass several foreigners, their accents placing them farther west than even Wintercress. Most carried tools and baskets, off to the various jobs the Duke was paying them well for. In the throngs of craftspeople, she thought she caught a glimpse of a Nomori face, but it disappeared before she could be sure.
Two guardsmen, both Erevan, stood in front of the outpost, looking bored. She did not recognize either of them.
“The wells still are not clean,” one said, not even looking at her when she stopped. “Take your buckets to the palace tier and wait in line like everyone else, Nomori.”
“I’m aware. Two Cressian soldiers tried to take control of the west district’s well.” She nudged Puck forward. “Tried to take us both to prison, and when that failed, they began shooting. They…they were scared off, though. But I doubt the next of their ilk will be.”
The other looked from her to Puck, who had put his best scowl on. “Wintercress soldiers?”
“Yes. They went on about their authority in the city. I would keep an eye on them.”
He grimaced, an acknowledgment of what needed to be done.
Nadya pushed Puck forward a step. “He needs medical attention, and he doesn’t have family.” She did not have to name the scouring sickness. The blemishes on his skin could belong to nothing else.
“I don’t need anything from a bloodcloth!” Puck declared.
“Please,” Nadya said, ignoring him and looking at the guardsmen.
One smiled and nodded. “I was about to go to the hospital to visit my niece. Perhaps he’d like to join me.”
“She pretty?” Puck asked, face screwed up in thoughtful consideration.
The guardsmen laughed. “She is, but you will mind yourself.”
Nadya let herself smile a bit. She lightly squeezed Puck on the shoulder. “See you around, Deathtiger.”
He looked up at her and winked, and suddenly she was not sure if he knew her secret or not. It didn’t matter; no one would believe a child like him. If anything, she wished for what he had seen to give him some bit of hope, something to use to fight the disease creeping through his body. Her thoughts swirled as she left, cutting her way through several alleys. Now that Puck had been taken care of, her mind flashed back to the Cressian soldiers.
Aster’s voice echoed in her mind. Braka. Insect beneath the boot. Who is the insect, Nadya wondered, and who is the boot?
When she put a hand to the door of her shack, she stopped. Someone was inside, their breath deep and regular. The exhausted part of her mind wailed. She shushed it and steadied herself. The noise could be the Wintercress soldiers come for revenge.
“Show yourself,” she called. “I’m not in the mood for games.”
“Nadya, it’s me.”
Her heart froze. That voice that she had not heard in over two months, the one that brought peace to Storm’s Quarry and warmth to her chest. That one which she feared she might never hear again.
Nadya flung back the door, and there Kesali stood in the middle of the floor, wearing a dark cloak that concealed half her face. Her clothes, traditional Nomori tunic and trousers, lacked any sense of finery, unembroidered gray as they were. The low lamplight of the street flickered across her frown. Dark circles gave weight and age to her features, sculpting her from the careful Nomori girl into the Stormspeaker, betrothed to Storm’s Quarry’s heir, the city’s future on her shoulders.
“Hi,” Nadya said weakly. Other words, more words, better words got lost in the tide of emotion that rose within her. For weeks, she’d been imagining what her next conversation with Kesali would sound like, what she would say to make right the distance that now lay between them, but with the Stormspeaker standing in her hovel, Nadya forgot it all.
“Hello, Nadya. I—I’ve come to ask for your help.”
Her mind snapped out of itself. Nadya stepped into the hovel. “What do you need me to do?” She kicked some refuse into a corner; she hardly kept a clean house, and she did not want Kesali to notice.
“No pleasantries then?” she asked, and a smile finally broke the tired lines of her face. Too tired, too young.
As happy as she was to see Kesali’s smile, Nadya could not help the worry that gnawed at her. “I imagine your business is urgent. Otherwise, the lady of Storm’s Quarry should not be traveling down to the second tier after dark. Alone.” Nadya gestured to the ground, and they sat. “And don’t tell me you brought the Guard. I can hear them a league away, and none came with you. You snuck out.”
Kesali gave a sheepish grin, and Nadya’s fingertips grew warm. “I am capable of it, as you well know.”
Nadya smiled too. Her neck eased a bit. Growing up, she and Kesali had been twin tornados, getting into everything two respectable Nomori girls should not. More than once, her grandmother Drina had caught them coming home in the middle of the night from a clandestine trip to the fourth tier to spy on the city’s wealthy.
A good memory, from before. Before Nadya discovered she was nivasi, before Gedeon and the solstice, and before the hesitance—sharper breaths, flickering gaze, halted movements—crept into Kesali’s demeanor, hesitance Nadya could only assume was caused by her. She doubted even Kesali realized she did it, but the body language was plain as lettering for someone of Nadya’s gifts.
“Even so, I didn’t come here alone.”
Nadya’s heart tripped. Her hands fumbled as she clasped them, aching to reach out and touch Kesali’s arm. But she looked at Kesali, at her dark eyes, the way the lantern light turned them into storm clouds, and wondered what remained between them. Or had it all passed the moment Nadya tore off her mask?
Of course you didn’t come alone, not to the lair of the Phoenix. Nadya frowned. “What do you—?”
“Nadya, thank the gods you are here.”
Marko, lord of Storm’s Quarry, stumbled in the door behind her. Sweat shone at his brow line, making his thick red hair gleam even brighter in the dim light. An easy smile spread across his face. “I had begun searching the neighborhood, sure our information was wrong.”
He reached out and grasped her forearm.
The man who was to marry the woman she was in love with. Nadya bit back the surge of resentment that always tripped her tongue when speaking to the Duke’s son.
It would have been better if Marko was cruel or arrogant, but he was always nothing but cordial to Nadya, the daughter of his mentor but still just a Nomori nobody from the sea-scum tier. If that had been the case, she could hate him, rather than experience this weird twist of anger, jealousy, and guilt every time she saw him.
Nadya returned his grasp. She drew back, avoiding Kesali’s eyes. “Good to see you, Marko.”
“I wish it were under better circumstances. For both of us.” He bit his lip, scanning the misshapen interior of her new home. “I—I do not mean to pry, Nadya, but this is far from your parents’ house.”
Kesali cuffed him. “Then don’t pry. We aren’t here to poke into the business of others.”
“Right, sorry.” He inclined his head. “We actually need your help, and I’m off to a poor start.”
“It’s no matter. I am here to help.” She hoped the edge of bitterness she felt did not creep too far into her tone.
“That is good to hear. You were invaluable in our investigations prior to the Blood Sun Solstice.”
She snorted. As the Iron Phoenix, perhaps, but as Nadya Gabori she contributed little but to disagree with her grandmother in the reading of truth in others. It was the guise she wore, pretending to have a psychic gift like every normal Nomori woman, using her enhanced hearing to detect dishonesty.
“You mean to keep my grandmother from ranting about Nomori culture being watered down?”
“A definite bonus to your incredible skills,” Marko said. “I considered asking Madame Gabori for her assistance in this matter—”
“For half a moment,” Kesali added.
“Less than that, I think.” Marko shrugged. “We will keep her in reserve, our secret weapon against Wintercress should it come down to such extraordinary measures.”
“Let us all pray that it doesn’t,” Nadya muttered. She meant it too. Being in a room with Drina Gabori, powerful empath and matriarch of the family, was the last thing she wanted. Her mother had probably divulged her secret, willingly or not, and Drina Gabori was nothing if not a staunch Nomori traditionalist.
Her father risked a lot, continuing to see and train her as he did, she knew.
“It might. Our talks with Wintercress are difficult at best and may become disastrous at worst.” Kesali sighed. “To be blunt, we need to know whether we are being lied to or not. Lady Aster, Councillor to the High King of Wintercress, appointed ambassador, and arrogant prick—”
“Not something we should call the woman who controls whether or not we get the compound,” Marko cut in. “Especially since we just met her.”
Kesali rolled her eyes, muttering, “But it is true.”
“Aster?” Nadya frowned. “She is in charge?”
“Yes, the official dignitary sent by Wintercress to help us in this trying time.” Kesali grimaced, her voice betraying her cynicism. “She is here one afternoon and already has the upper hand in every conversation. She was born to this kind of thing, and I am still trying to find my way. Worse, she knows it.”
“You can hold your own,” Marko said. “As much as any of us, at least. She is skilled. She left my father dizzy after an hour-long bout of political nonsense.” He looked to Nadya. “He has been saying that I may take an advisor in this, and with the councillor now here, I’d like that to be you.”
“An advisor?” She nearly choked on the word. “To you?”
“Gods, yes. You’re smart, and you’re honest.”
If only you knew…
“And you can sense honesty in another. I need someone I can trust, someone who can tear through all the niceties and smiles and gods-cursed political theatrics and get at the truth. You’ll be compensated, of course, which should help…you know…” He gestured around.
“Marko.” Kesali gave Nadya an apologetic smile, but her eyes held more. Although they had not spoken since the solstice, she could no doubt guess why Nadya was suddenly living in a decrepit building in the second tier. She could offer nothing with Marko in the room, but Nadya was grateful enough for the stemming of his inquiries.
“Sorry, yes, you’ll be compensated.” He drew a breath. “Anything you want, short of food and clean water, because that’s the one thing our city does not have at the moment. If emeralds and sapphires were edible, our people would not be starving.”
“If we had clean waters, we wouldn’t have the starvation,” Kesali added. “No workers to start everything up again, and no trade, except Wintercress, damn them, because everyone is afraid of catching the scouring sickness. Wintercress holds the compound for purifying the water system from whatever demon spawn entered it in the wake of the solstice, and because of that, Councillor Aster can crack a whip above our heads at any moment.” Kesali’s mouth was a tight line. “We have another meeting tomorrow. I am just waiting for her to start making demands, and when that happens, we may be powerless to refuse them.”
“All the more reason we need you,” Marko added. The joviality had left his tone.
She swallowed back a bit of panic at his faith in her pretend abilities, though Kesali was looking at her just as imploringly, and she knew the truth. “Of course I will.” There was never a question, not when it came to helping Kesali and, by extension, the city itself. “You need me tomorrow?”
“Yes, by the gods, thank you, Nadya.” Marko’s shoulders sank, as if finally loosened. “You do not know what this means, having you on our side during these negotiations.”
She felt the tingle of a blush, hoping to live to up his faith. “I will do what I can.” As Nadya Gabori, not the Iron Phoenix. Maybe there is a way to make a difference here, without putting people in danger.
“You always do,” Kesali said. “And now, Marko, that we’ve successfully skipped out on a trade briefing”—she made a face—“and recruited a new advisor, could you wait outside for a moment? I need to speak with Nadya alone.”
Nadya’s pulse tripped over itself.
Marko just smiled. “Of course. I’ll be just outside the door. Don’t take too long, though. We do need to be getting back before the Guard launches a search.”
The instant he closed the door, Kesali’s posture changed. She sank down, the weight of the past months suddenly evident. “Stars, it’s good to see you. I feel like I’ve been floating through a dream since the solstice, that everything in my old life disappeared that morning.” Kesali sighed, and she looked like she had aged a decade since the solstice.
Nadya wished to hold her but kept her distance. “You have a city to protect.”
“A city I put in danger.”
“That was not your fault,” Nadya began, but Kesali cut her off.
“Was it not? I gave the zealot and his followers everything they needed to throw the city into chaos.” Kesali shook her head. “And don’t try to convince me otherwise. We almost lost the city in the floodwaters. My prophecy about the storm was self-fulfilling. A corrupt magistrate gave barrels of gunpowder to a madman, and he blew a hole in the wall. Had I not ever uttered that prophecy, the zealot might not have garnered the following he did, and more of our people would still be alive. I relied on the Protectress to bring winds and sun to scour the floodwaters away, but in the end it was the work of evil men that brought my prophecy to bear. Now, something new threatens Storm’s Quarry, and I will not stand by and pray, and let the same happen again.”
The zealot’s actions were as much your fault as the massacre at the Duke’s address was mine, she wanted to say, but bringing that cloud of ugliness into this conversation would ruin the first chance she and Kesali had had to speak in months. After a moment of hesitation, Nadya set a hand lightly on Kesali’s shoulder. She leaned into Nadya’s touch, half closing her eyes and exhaling. Nadya murmured, “Anything I can do?”
“You have done much just agreeing to help Marko and me.” Kesali smiled at her. “I really cannot thank you enough.”
“It’s fine.” Nadya’s mouth went dry. The words were there; as painful as they were, she needed to say them. “I—I owe the city a lot. I hurt so many people without meaning to.” So much for leaving it out. “This is one way of atonement. As Nadya, and not…”
The Iron Phoenix, the figure who stood between them like a wraith.
A long moment passed in silence, and Nadya cursed herself for bringing it up.
“You do not need to atone for the sins of the Iron Phoenix,” Kesali said quietly. She did not look at Nadya.
Her throat tightened. What did that mean? Could she truly pretend that putting on the cloak made her another person, that Nadya Gabori did not share an identity with the vigilante? Before she could come up with a response that did not threaten tears, Kesali spoke again.
“Remember that, Nadya, if nothing else. I’m afraid I need to go. Marko will likely be impatient to return to the palace.” She squeezed Nadya’s hand. “I hope to see you soon. I know it’s been a while—my duties took me away in the wake of the solstice.” She leaned closer, her breath hot against Nadya’s ear. “I nearly forgot how wonderful it feels to spend time with you. I…I hope it can happen again.” She withdrew and, drawing her hood up, disappeared out the door.
“Me too,” Nadya whispered. She smiled in spite of herself. Perhaps…perhaps things could go back to the way they were before the Phoenix, before the city’s fate balanced on the edge of a rapier. If Kesali saw past the Iron Phoenix and saw only Nadya, maybe that was for the best. Maybe the happily ever after of stories would find her.
The searing heat of the smelting fire wrapped itself around Shay, bringing a sheen of sweat over the grime of the past week. She wiped her forehead. The rafter brace she’d been crafting finally took on the harsh angle her hammer had been pounding it into for the last thirty minutes. Hand wrapped in a protective blanket, she took the brace and submerged it in water. Steam billowed out, stinging her eyes.
Since arriving in Storm’s Quarry, her days had been filled with nonstop work, firing and shaping iron for the rebuilding that the city needed. Shay saw pretty quickly why the city’s Duke was so willing to pay dearly for workers and craftsmen from other nations: Storm’s Quarry simply did not have the manpower needed for the repairs. Half the city had succumbed to the scouring sickness, and the other half was starving, and although more caravans—all from Wintercress—had arrived, their supplies barely made a dent in the need.
They had been given quarters in a derelict building on the third tier, but both Shay and Jeta preferred to keep their belongings in the smithy where most of their time was spent. She sucked in a deep breath, tasting the sparks and the iron in the air. She had spent her childhood at the foot of furnaces and anvils, learning what made her different and harnessing that power. Now, it was here where she prepared to take her knowledge and ability into the night.
Her work done, she began to change clothes. No one else entered this far corner of the city’s smithy, not after Jeta made it very clear to some overeager Erevan youth that this was now her territory. Shay pulled on black leather pants and heavy boots. Over her soot-stained shirt, she pulled on a leather jerkin that came down to her knees, with slits up the sides for ease of mobility. Before she slipped on the black leather gloves, she ran two fingers along the edge of the fire pit. She smeared the ash around her eyes.
“New look for the city?” Behind her, Jeta dropped a load of fresh wood onto the dwindling pile.
Shay flexed her fingers. The leather was stiff, but strong. It better be; she had paid a hefty sum for the goods last year at a trade show in Wintercress. “You know me. I need to keep up with the latest fashions.”
“You’re going out tonight.” In Jeta’s steady voice, it was not a question.
Shay turned around. “You know I always do. It’s good training.”
“This city already has one of you running around after dark. Didn’t think it needed two.” Jeta set the forge hammer down. Behind her, the fires of the furnace hissed and spat, like a clutch of dragon young, hungry and impatient.
“Well, I have got to keep my skills sharp, and there’s an abundance of scum around here to clean up. Think of it as a perk the Duke’s getting for paying us so much.” She tried to crack a casual smile, but Jeta saw right through it.
“Digging around the past never ends well.”
Not for the first time, Shay wondered about the forgemaster’s past. When her family threw her out of Storm’s Quarry, condemned to death, Jeta had taken pity on the thin, crying girl, giving her a home and a purpose. In the ten years since, Shay had learned little about the woman’s past, and Jeta offered nothing. Only the scars that ran up and down her hands and arms, the scars of a lifetime of harsh work, spoke at all to the time before Shay joined her.
“I am not here to do that.” The half-truth tripped coming out of her mouth.
Jeta shrugged. It was not an argument either of them would win, and they both knew it. “The Guard here has little tolerance for foreigners and less for Nomori. I will not have the time to come and bail you out. And if this Phoenix character gets his hands on you, don’t think I will be there to rescue you.”
Shay smiled. She kissed the older woman on the cheek and left the smithy, saying, “Then I’d better be faster than all of them.”
Outside, the oppressive humidity brought only slight relief to the heat of the furnaces. Shay kept her eyes down as she merged onto the street, blending in with the crowds of people returning home. After exiting the railbox on the Nomori tier, she slipped away from the town square—Remember the parties and the chanting and the glow of being held by a mother?—and into the first alley she saw, behind a bakery. Surefooted, she climbed the piles of rubble and refuse until she reached the rooftop.
The damage the solstice had inflicted was most apparent on the Nomori tier. Pools of water, knee-deep in some places, dotted the streets and alleys. Clouds of disease-carrying insects laid claim to them, birthing brood after brood of parasites. Stones lay piled every which way as crews worked day and night to clear the fallen wall.
Shay turned her eyes deep into the Nomori tier. Ten years was a long time, but homes were handed down in Nomori families. If they still lived, they would be there. She turned away. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Ten years ago, a young girl felt a soft fire in her chest. She prodded it, and fire filled her hands, not burning her. Her sister, older by five years and gifted with the powerful psychic ability to read the true nature of things, touched the girl and saw the fire. She told their parents, whose faces turned into masks. Many words were exchanged between them, and in the end the little girl was taken to the end of the tier, to the deep culverts that lined the inner side of the great wall.
Ten years ago, a little girl who could control fire was supposed to die.
Shay began to run. The rooftops ran together here. With some agility, she jumped between them, the warm wind whipping her short hair about. Her breath came in large gasps, but the hearty pumping of her blood was invigorating. She had not completely lied to Jeta. This was something she needed, she craved. Training that came from the bite of the night.
As for the rest, Shay steeled herself for each step taken in the Nomori tier. Running across rooftops, conjuring fire, stars, even fighting off bandits seemed easier to her than what she had come to Storm’s Quarry to do. Six years after being taken in by Jeta, the forgemaster had told Shay of her nivasi blood, of how the Nomori handled these aberrations. The truth did nothing to change Shay’s mind. Giving a name—nivasi—and a purpose to her family’s betrayal did not absolve them of it. Not in her eyes. Although Jeta meant well by telling her the truth, the knowledge only increased her obsession with what had transpired years ago in Storm’s Quarry.
Years ago here. These streets. These people. My people.
She kept a wary eye on the surrounding rooftops. The gossip of Storm’s Quarry traveled quickly, and in the days she’d been here, she had heard quite a bit about the masked man who also prowled about at night. The Iron Phoenix, they called him, and depending on whom you asked and how many bottles of spirits they’d drunk, he was either hero or madman or murderer.
If there truly was another nivasi in Storm’s Quarry, another who’d slipped through the cracks of the Elders’ careful plans of elimination, then she would do well to be careful. Jeta’s warning rang in her ears.
The sounds of a fight broke the silence of the night, overwhelming Jeta’s stern voice. Shay stopped.
Looters, six of them. Wielding clubs and lengths of spiked chains. They looked Erevan in the lamplight. Shay watched for a moment as the assailants trampled down the door of a run-down Nomori home. Fools, if they thought to find clean water or food on the Nomori tier. But hatred was sown deep.
Screams echoed through the street. None came to assist. Shay scoffed. The Nomori liked to pretend they were one people committed to one another. She knew the truth. That commitment only went as far as needed to serve their own interests, whether it be to ignore the plight of a neighbor, or to sentence a child to death.
With the Duke’s Guard stretched so thin, the looters had nothing to fear. They came out of the house carrying sacks and laughing. Shay slipped over the gutters and landed roughly. Her knees protested, but she ignored the pain.
Nothing to fear but her.
“Head home,” she said loudly. The looters turned away from the door. “You are done here.”
“And you’re the protection here, then?” one of them called back. He started casually swinging the chain he held. “You aren’t the Phoenix. Get out of here before things go badly.”
“Things will go badly. For you.” Shay held out her empty hands. She knew she shouldn’t be doing this, that the fight was a risk she did not need to take. But the salt-tinged air of the Nomori tier weighed down upon her, and she needed to do something.
“I don’t think—”
Twin blades of white light appeared in her hands. Heat pounded up and down her arms as Shay fueled the light from her own life fire.
The looter fell back a few steps. “Gods, we’ll go. We didn’t mean anything wrong by it.”
Too late. She darted toward them. The first man swung his spiked chain at her head. Shay brought one of her blades up. It sliced through the iron like it was ice. The weapon clattered to the ground.
She swung again, dodging club strikes, and her blade cut through the man’s clothing, his flesh, his bone, and he fell, wordless in death.
The others tried to run away, but her weapons caught two of them in an instant, severing their legs. Then their spines. She chased after the remaining three, herding them back with nips from her blades that severed chunks of flesh from their arms.
Two cries, and then two soft thumps.
The Iron Phoenix might spare lives, but she did not. Something she had learned the hard way over the past decade. The final body fell to the ground in three pieces. Silence filled the street once more.
“Protectress, save us.”
Shay turned toward the whisper. In the doorway of a nearby house, a young woman stood, face pale in the flickering lamplight. She looked her over, grateful for the soot mask. What she saw jolted her to the core. Eyes, the same as her own. A gift from her father.
Also passed to her sister.
Behind the woman, a young Nomori man, no doubt her husband, stood. Eyes wide, rapier clutched tightly, he was no doubt praying to his Protectress to be saved from the mad nivasi girl who had cut down six grown men in front of them.
She hefted her weapons. Fire distilled to its purest form—light. It had taken years of training for her to master the gift they had nearly killed her for. Now, that control slipped as sweat trickled down her neck. Her brother-in-law brandished his rapier, but she could see its blade quivering, mirroring the flickering light of her own weapons.
Her breath came fast. They feared her. Her own kin. Her sister could not possibly know it was her, and yet the nivasi in her blood was enough. My sister, afraid of the dragon waiting in the dark. Nothing had changed since Simza’s betrayal had revealed her abilities to their Elders. Here is your chance for closure. Speak to her. The roar of blood rushing past her ears drowned out that sensible voice. The blades of light in her hands flickered out suddenly, leaving the street in darkness.
Shay turned and sprinted away, heart pounding with the unmistakable tremor of fear.