Chapter One

It was said by traveling minstrels and merchants alike that the beauty of Storm’s Quarry had no equal. The citystate rose up like a statue, its walls carved from ancient white marble. Its five tiers gave way to one another as if each was an ascending guardian of the rare gemstone mines the city was built upon. At its feet, the Kyanite Sea, a great inland body of salt water, filled the crater which had once felt the impact of a fallen star. The waters of the Kyanite would grow restless and dangerous during the frequent violent storms the city weathered, but tonight, they lay subdued. Storm’s Quarry, however, had not yielded to the arrows and battering rams that besieged it.

Even surrounded by the First Legion of His Majesty’s Army, the pride of the Kingdom of Wintercress, Storm’s Quarry stood defiant. Or so Lode imagined as she approached the city gate.

The torches held by Cressian soldiers gave their light to the still, black waters of the Kyanite Sea, which in turn gave the marble walls standing before them an ethereal glow. Lode raised her hand in the flickering torchlight, marveling at the white sheen her already pale skin took on in the shadow of the mountainous city. Storm’s Quarry was, she thought, the most breathtaking sight she had ever seen.

Of course, she could not remember if that was really true.

Overhead, arrows alight with explosive oils flew above the walls, smoldering as they met their deaths on cold, unfeeling marble. The steady boom of the Cressian battering ram echoed across the bridge, though it left no mark upon the great gate of Storm’s Quarry. In between strikes, a steady tinny sound filled the air as musket fire from upon the walls struck the kite shields carried by the first rows of the Cressian army.

It was a standstill.

“Hurry up, girl!”

Lode slowly looked away from the wall and to the soldier who had been tasked with bringing her to the front lines. He gestured at her with annoyance, as if she was some misbehaving hound. She stared at him for a moment longer before following once more.

“Ignorant wench,” he muttered under his breath as he waited for her. Lode considered the insult as she walked, but it brought no clench of anger to her chest. Frustratingly, though, she was certain it used to. Before.

They wove between disciplined camps of soldiers, all standing at the ready, their eyes focused upon the great wall before them. Finally, she and her guide came through to the foremost part of the bridge.

Behind the first regiment, whose shields kept any retaliation from the wall at bay, a lieutenant, by his olive-colored cloak, was speaking with a tall man in white-gold armor. Surrounding them, a host of the royal guard, their plumed helms marking their import, stood at the ready.

“Months ago, the Erevans managed to blow a hole in their own wall, and they’ve done nothing but stuffed it with rubble in the meantime. Can we not simply walk over it?” the taller man asked, his voice betraying the barest edge of impatience.

The lieutenant’s fingers twitched at his sides. “I’m afraid not, Your Highness.”

“This is war,” he snapped. “Soldiers of the High King do not fear.”

“Of course.” The lieutenant straightened. “We cannot scale the damaged wall, Your Highness. Storm’s Quarry’s forces have shored it up, and they have stationed a regiment of musket men just inside it. None of our soldiers have made it over the top.”

“And our battering ram is just as useless. So be it. I did not wager upon a war with such common tools.” The taller man turned away from the lieutenant he had been speaking to and looked to Lode and the soldier who led her.

The soldier bowed deeply, and then announced, “His Highness, Trillium, Crown Prince of Wintercress, favored son of the King.”

Lode stared at the Prince. Trillium stood with ease in his ceremonial armor, its white-gold plating nearly glowing in the torchlight. Figurehead he might be, but his armor carried the scars of battle—small dents, silver scratches—that not even the greatest smiths could mend. His saber bore a well-worn hilt, and his left hand rested casually upon it. Fair hair, so blond as to be nearly white, was cropped short in military style, and his eyes, a shining blue, looked over Lode with great interest.

It had been only weeks…months?…since she had awoken to those same glacial eyes, edges soft in a gleeful smile. A stranger had hovered just above her as she awoke. His breath smelled sweet, of something familiar, but the memory was out of her reach and she couldn’t identify the scent.

She would come to learn that this man was the Crown Prince of Wintercress.

“You are strong, stronger than the others. You survived where they did not,” the Prince had said, eyes roving over her naked body, not with lust but excitement. “If you are as powerful as they say, then we will crush those brakabeneath our armies. And you will be the lodestone of our plans.”

Lode did not remember her name, and the chemists who wore elaborate masks and cut her arms for blood never remembered to give her one. So she took Lodefor herself.

She blinked and the chilly salt-tinged air brought her back to the bridge before Storm’s Quarry. “Yes?” she said without a bow or even a gracious nod.

“You speak to the Crown Prince, girl,” the soldier barked. Inside, she felt his footsteps upon the bridge, felt his weight shift as he moved to strike her. “Show some res—”

The Prince raised his hand and his personal guard moved to intercept the soldier’s progress.

Lode retreated internally as well, without moving, as she released the grip she had on the power. The Prince’s icy blue eyes, bright even in the predawn darkness, rested on the man. “Show some respect to our victory, soldier. Know to whom you speak.” His tone a dismissal, he turned from the suddenly sweating soldier and looked to Lode. “I have received positive reports of your progress.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“War is far different, you know.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” she said, for there was nothing more to say.

Prince Trillium gave a swift nod. “Then we should not keep our gracious hosts waiting another moment.” He turned and walked through the regiment of royal guards, who parted for him like wheat. Lode followed him.

The bulk of the Cressian army still waited on the far shore of the Kyanite Sea. The narrow stone bridge that connected Storm’s Quarry to the rest of the world did not allow a large force to pass, a natural defense the city had long employed against enemies. Coupled with its immense walls, which while cracked, had been impressively shored up, Storm’s Quarry stood nearly impenetrable. A fact the guardsmen who defended its ramparts knew well.

A Cressian soldier advanced, carrying the red flag of negotiation. On the wall, a sharp order was barked out, and the muskets withdrew, no doubt still within easy reach of their masters.

When the ceasefire was complete, the regiment of royal guards remained behind Prince Trillium as he approached the gate, his soldiers falling in line behind him. Lode followed him. Two steps back, one to the left.

One of the city defenders stepped forward up on the ramparts. This guardsman wore a brilliant red uniform, a rapier belted at his side. He stood with practiced military posture, though he crossed his arms in front of him as if daring the Prince to speak.

Prince Trillium took the dare. “Guardmaster, have you come to hand over the keys to your city?” he said in near flawless Erevo, the language of Storm’s Quarry. Lode understood the Prince as he spoke, knowing the foreign words nearly as well as her own Cressian. She could not remember having learned them, and the lack of memory itched at the base of her skull.

“We let your people into our city once, and you poisoned our water.” The Guardmaster spoke in accented Erevo, revealing his nomadic Nomori heritage. “Your councillor betrayed the good faith of our Duke and conspired against Storm’s Quarry. Wintercress will find no friends here.”

“So send out your masked heroes,” the Prince said, spreading his arms wide. “The Iron Phoenix and the Shadow Dragon, you call them? The ones who breathe fire and break stone? Where are they to defend their city?”

“The Guard of Duke Isyanov need none to fight for them,” the Guardmaster said curtly.

Prince Trillium shook his head. “It was not your Guard that drove out the small regiment of Cressian soldiers under the command of my ambitious cousin, Guardmaster. It was those two Nomori. Nivasi, your people call them? They swore to watch over your city, so where are they now?”

Lode did not hear the Guardmaster’s reply as she furrowed her brow, straining to remember. The word meant something, but her memory was a void before the moment she awoke to meet the Crown Prince of Wintercress. If it meant something once, it was long lost to her.

Prince Trillium was speaking. “Pity your Duke chose so poorly, placing only a Nomori in defense of the city.”

“My Duke has my full confidence, and I his,” the Guardmaster said, his tone ignoring the insult. “Return to your men. You will find no surrender here. Continue your pointless barrage against our walls. Not even a Great Storm can overcome them, and your army, Prince, has nowhere near the power of those winds.”

A hushed silence fell over the Cressian regiment as soldiers peered forward, waiting to see if their leader would rise to the Nomori’s baiting.

Prince Trillium laughed. A swift chuckle of personal amusement, unexpected of the general of an invading force. He looked to Lode, speaking loudly for the Guardmaster to hear while never breaking eye contact with her. “The skies are a force to contend with, no doubt. But only a fool thinks the wind the only power in this world.” Then he lowered his voice and said for Lode’s ears alone, “Bring them down.”

Lode nodded. She stepped forward, while the Prince and his guard backed off, leaving her alone before the great gate of Storm’s Quarry.

She studied the walls, the weathered marble that still stood unmarred, the sharp cracks that had been hastily patched in the wake of the Blood Sun Solstice and the damage it had wrought upon the city. Lode then turned inward and reached down. Far down to where the well of power sprung from her core, where the steadying pulse, still new to her and yet part of her, pulled at her mind.

In the moment before her grip tightened, it occurred to Lode that someone starting a war should feel something, anything. But her chest was calm and empty, and her Prince was waiting, so she brushed the annoying thought off and pulled back.

And the great wall of Storm’s Quarry came crashing down.

 

v

 

Standing in the center trade pavilion of the town of Kipperwell amidst the early bustle of the northern caravans making their annual stop, Nadezhda Gabori had only one thought running through her mind: a pride of sabercats was far less frightening than an angry forgemaster.

Nadya might be nivasi, with all the unnatural power that came with that rare Nomori blood. She might have saved the city of Storm’s Quarry from a mad nivasibent on civil war and then again from a convincing councillor from the Kingdom of Wintercress who threatened to take the city by poisoning its water. She might be known as the feared vigilante, the Iron Phoenix.

All of that paled in comparison to what she faced now.

The forgemaster in question was bent over the town’s central forge, methodically working away at an order of delicate piping for the town’s new water system. The forge, built out of red clay in the traditional South Marches style, sat under the pavilion’s central awning. It was a workplace for visiting masters and teachers. Now clad in a simple cotton tunic, the powerful woman stoked the forge, working it as if she owned the market forge in the same way Nadya had seen her at every forge in the ten months she had been traveling with the caravan.

Jeta Forgemaster carried her title with ease, earned from decades of mastery of her craft. She was heavyset and stood two heads taller than Nadya. A lifetime of smithing had given her muscles any guardsman would be jealous of. Intricate black tattoos, a pattern sacred to the Blood Hawk tribe, spiraled down her arms, fading into the forge’s soot that coated her hands. Nadya knew next to nothing about the woman’s origin, as she never spoke of her past. She only knew that other than her erstwhile apprentice, Shay, the forgemaster valued nothing above her craft.

Which was why the last place Nadya wished to be was standing in front of the forge, holding the damaged breastplate that Jeta had forged for the Iron Phoenix, her infamous vigilante identity, out of star metal just ten months beforehand.

“I was clearing out that den of sabercats,” Nadya was saying, her voice barely above a whisper. “The ones that have been harassing the farms? You suggested I take the bounty.” Truthfully, she knew that Jeta had only handed her the Kipperwell bounty in order to rid her apprentice of distractions.

Nadya sent a silent prayer to the Protectress, something she found herself doing far more often since leaving Storm’s Quarry. “My armor got a bit roughed up. Thought you might be able to take a look.” She cringed as she said it and offered the breastplate to Jeta.

The forgemaster slowly put down her tools and came over. She took the breastplate from Nadya, who immediately stepped back. Jeta’s callused fingers traced the shale-colored scratches in the otherwise flawless piece. “Cats did not damage my work.”

“Er, no,” Nadya said. She tried to focus on the details in the forge’s smoldering coals and not the way its glow made its master look like Death itself. “I…um…fell down.”

“Fell down.”

Nadya winced. Even if Jeta believed Nadya was capable of such clumsiness, which, admittedly, she was, Jeta was sure in her own craftsmanship. In the past months, Nadya had become so as well, as the star-cut armor, a deep gray nearly black, stood against blades and bullets alike. It fit her body like a second skin, and with its dark hood and cloak, it concealed her identity.

“Down into a ravine,” Nadya admitted. She rubbed the back of her neck, where the forge’s heat broke her skin into a sweat. “The cats weren’t too strong, but they were clever. A couple snuck up behind me. Tripped me back over the cliff.” She held up her arms, where the purplish bruises were already fading to yellow. “Hurt a lot, actually.”

Jeta’s face showed no pity. Whether it was because she knew of Nadya’s nivasigift, her unnatural strength that made her fairly unbreakable, or because she actually couldn’t care less for Nadya’s well-being, only the Protectress herself knew. The forgemaster had certainly never displayed anything but annoyance toward Nadya.

“A warrior should respect their armor,” Jeta said finally. She ran her fingers along the curves in the breastplate, no doubt feeling and noting each imperfection. “I can fix this, provided you treat it better in the future.”

“Of course,” Nadya said quickly.

“Do not make promises you have no intention of keeping. You need no armor. I am aware of that,” Jeta said. Nadya flinched. She rarely heard the forgemaster allude so bluntly to her nivasiblood. “Armor makes little difference to the damage you take. But that is not what this is about.”

She paused, and Nadya held her breath. She couldn’t remember the last time Jeta had spoken this much to her.

Jeta held up the breastplate. “Respect it, not because it keeps a blade from slicing your skin, but because of what it is. What it symbolizes. What it protects. Remember who you are when you wear the armor, and respect that.”

“The Iron Phoenix,” Nadya said quietly.

“Good. Because if you don’t, no one will. And it will be your own doing.”

Nadya swallowed hard, but her throat remained stubbornly dry. She had chosen this, accepted herself as both Nadezhda Gabori of the Nomori and the Iron Phoenix. The thought of losing it all when she had struggled to make up for the bloodshed her carelessness had caused…

“Aww, don’t scare her like that. You know how fragile Nadya can be.” Familiar footsteps echoed softly against the cut stone floor of the pavilion. Shay walked up to the two of them, smelling of sweetened smoke as she always did. She slung an arm around Nadya, who leaned into the familiar embrace. “Shoot her with a musket and she barely flinches, but raise your voice, and she bawls like a newborn lamb.”

Nadya relaxed. Shay’s teasing was as constant and as comforting as the rattle of the old steam pumps that kept Storm’s Quarry free of floodwaters. “Thanks,” she whispered with a wry smile. “I’d almost swooned before you galloped in to save me.”

“Much as I try, I can’t help but be your knight in shining armor,” Shay said, planting a kiss right below Nadya’s earlobe. Shay’s touch was warm, hot even, as the fire that burned within the other nivasiroiled just beneath her skin.

A loud clang broke the moment, as the forgemaster struck the edge of a newly formed pipe with her shaping mallet. “Anything else?” Jeta asked, her tone curt enough to convey that the answer had better be no.

“Um…” Nadya held up the torn hood.

Shay grabbed her arm. “Don’t try your luck, love. Get it mended in the market.”

Jeta’s intense stare lingered on Nadya for a moment longer before she turned her back on both of them. “And where have you been?” the forgemaster asked Shay gruffly. She struck the glowing metal of the new pipe with practiced movements.

“Making charcoal, or did you forget that wonderful assignment?” Shay grimaced. “Your charcoal is waiting outside, and I’m going to smell like charred logs for days.”

Shay was the only person Nadya had ever heard speak to Jeta like that. She figured anyone else who had dared to found their remains feeding her forge.

“You weren’t seen?” The edge of concern in Jeta’s voice made Nadya’s chest tighten. She was so happy that Shay had a mentor like Jeta in her life, a mother, really, who had taken the young nivasichild to spare her from the death to which Nomori tradition doomed all her kind. Nadya couldn’t imagine the patience, and the ability to dodge angry firebolts, it had taken to raise Shay, but watching them work together, conversing casually in the way only made possible by a decade of bonding, Nadya’s heart ached with jealousy. Her father, Shadar Gabori of the Duke’s Guard, might have accepted her nivasinature, but it had come years late.

“Of course not,” Shay was saying. “Kipperwell’s tiny enough. Plenty of places to burn wood without being spotted.” She snapped her fingers, ignoring Jeta’s disapproving glare. The ghost of a flame sprouted from them and disappeared. “Easy as sweetpie.”

“As sweetpie?” Nadya asked with a giggle. Shay made it all too easy to forget the things that troubled her, seemingly without trying at all.

Shay shrugged. “It’s a thing they say here. And we would not be subjected to such unrefined colloquialisms if we moved on from this tiny town and headed out to one of the big cities in the South Marches,” she said with a suggestive look to Jeta.

The forgemaster didn’t even look up. “If you do not want to be given a task to make more charcoal, I suggest you both leave me in peace.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Shay grinned at Nadya as they left the forge area and made their way into the market proper. “You know, she likes you a lot,” Shay said when they had left the heat of the forge behind.

Nadya snorted. “Hardly. She rarely says more than two words to me. And did you see her? I thought she was going to eat me alive.”

“If she didn’t like you, she most certainly would have. I’ve seen her tear people apart who showed far less idiocy,” Shay said, cuffing Nadya lightly in the arm.

“Thanks.” Nadya caught her hand, threading her fingers between Shay’s. Soot stained, as well, she thought with a small smile. One day, they would be as callused as the forgemaster’s own. As much as Shay grumbled about her work with Jeta, Nadya knew she harbored fierce loyalty to the older woman and cherished her position by her side.

“She thinks you’re good for me,” Shay said, suddenly.

“Oh?” Nadya frowned. “I thought she wanted you to focus on your work, not go off every night with another nivasi.”

Shay dodged out of the way of a string of children chasing a stray dog. Their shrieking laughter filled the nearby market stalls, and more than one shopkeeper sent them a disapproving glare as the bunch sprinted past. “Little cretins,” Shay said, but she was smiling. “Hard to believe that was once us, running through the streets of Storm’s Quarry.”

Nadya nodded. It seemed like a lifetime ago, the two of them as children, making mischief in the damp alleys of the Nomori tier. Hiding colored pebbles, digging for treasures in the dust, dodging the chores their mothers hounded them about. Such memories were bittersweet, as Nadya knew what came after: Shay disappearing without a trace, her kin denying her existence. Only years later did the two reunite. Nadya, disguised as the Iron Phoenix, had confronted a nivasiin the streets of Storm’s Quarry. Unbelievably, that nivasirevealed herself as Nadya’s childhood friend.

A turn of fate Nadya could not be more grateful for.

“She doesn’t necessarily approve of all the vigilante work, and she thinks the names are ridiculous.” Shay turned to Nadya. “Which you know I agree with. The names are a bit much.”

Nadya gave her a playful tap on the nose. “The names were given to us by Storm’s Quarry. You were talking about Jeta.”

“Yes, right. Well, she doesn’t like the whole Dragon and Phoenix thing, but she likes you. She thinks you’re good for me. You’re…steady. And I need that.” Shay squeezed her forearm, entwining their arms to walk side by side through the market.

“I didn’t know that.” Of the two of them, Shay had always been the fiery one, her nivasinature—her ability to conjure fire and focus it into blades of light—and her quick personality feeding off one another. Nadya did not know if that made her the steady one. She could be, had been, just as quick and careless. And she had blood on her hands for it.

“Don’t think too hard on it, Nadya.” Shay gave her cheek a brief peck. “Try to have a little fun this morning, all right?”

“I think I can manage,” Nadya said as they wandered through the crowds of Kipperwell’s market square.

Nadya marveled at just how unremarkable they were here. Nomori—the once nomadic psychic people who traversed the world’s waterways, now the newest inhabitants of the city of Storm’s Quarry—were uncommon here, true, and their golden-brown skin and dark braids earned the two women a curious glance or two as they threaded their way through market stalls, dodging eager sellers brandishing their dried meats and wool skeins. But their clasped hands, the way Shay rested her chin on Nadya’s shoulder when they stopped to examine some embroidery, the small touches that had become all too easy over the past months—those did not draw a second look from any of the merchants or Marchers alike. In the Nomori tier of Storm’s Quarry, such intimate familiarity would be the subject of gossip and ostracism. In the Nomori tradition, women married men, bearing children and carrying on the leadership of their families. They did not wear capes and hunt crime after nightfall; certainly, they did not share kisses with another woman.

Only Nadya’s mother, Mirela Gabori, knew of her preference, knowing even before Nadya had confessed her feelings for Kesali Stormspeaker, her childhood friend and now wife of the city’s heir, during the last Great Storm. Mirela had accepted her daughter without question then. That changed, of course, when she learned of Nadya’s nivasiblood.

Nivasiwere the bane of Nomori society, children born with unnatural powers outside the traditional psychic gifts of their women and preternatural fighting ability of their men. Once discovered, nivasichildren were taken away and disposed of for the protection of all.

​Given the past destruction caused by nivasi, Nadya could not blame her people. Even if she and Shay found themselves branded as the same dangerous menace as the others.

“Oi, stop dwelling,” Shay said, cuffing Nadya’s shoulder and drawing her out of her dark thoughts.

“I’m not,” she tried to argue, but Shay shook her head.

“Don’t lie, Nadya. I can see it in your eyes, when you start thinking of it all. You’ve left it behind. Let it stay there.” She put a hand on either side of Nadya’s face. Her skin radiated warmth, fueled by her naturalnivasifire.

Nadya closed her eyes, letting Shay’s warmth soothe her tightened throat, calm her restless hands. It had become so familiar that her body’s reaction was instinctive. She took a deep breath. “I know.”

Shay gave her a quick kiss, tasting ever of smoke and metal. “You don’t, but you will one day. Let’s get your hood mended before it gives Jeta chest pains.”

Letting herself be led off by Shay, who seemed determined to distract her, Nadya couldn’t help the wandering nature of her thoughts. Back to Storm’s Quarry, to the only home, the only Natsia—her Nomori long road home—she had known before Shay. To its ancient walls and the salty scent of the Nomori tier, to the old Gabori house and her loft, to the Nomori fountain where she and Kesali had shared their first kiss and danced under the stars.

To the bloodstained courtyard of the Duke where she, under the influence of a mad and powerful nivasi, slaughtered dozens with her bare hands. Her heart pounded from within her chest as it always did when the memories surfaced. But now, Nadya had something to defend against them.

“Nadya, love,” Shay said, touching her arm. Grounding her in the present.

Nadya gave a weak smile. “I’m fine.” She should be. She should be more than fine, happy even, Nadya knew. She had love, adventure, freedom all at her fingertips. No longer did she live under the threat of those who hunted nivasi, or wished to see the Iron Phoenix hang. No longer could the ghosts of Storm’s Quarry haunt her every step.

As the midmorning sun warmed the edges of the pavilion, the market hit its peak, with nearly all of Kipperwell’s one thousand citizens in the central square. Languages, from the dozen tongues of the South Marches to Erevo and even Cressian, echoed against each other as patrons conducted heated barters. The oversweet scent of sugar dough wafted through the line of market stalls; it overpowered the softer smells of the native fruits and vegetables of the March lands on display. Despite all the activity around her, Nadya was an island unto herself. A deep ache rattled her bones as the differentness of this place squeezed down upon her.

Natsia…

“Nadya?” Nadya looked up to see the worry in Shay’s black eyes before the other woman hid it with a smile. “Come, I know a tailor from the last time our caravan came through here. And maybe we can get one of your favorite pastries on the way?”

She should be happy, Nadya knew, so she put on a smile of her own and nodded and followed Shay.

 

Chapter Two

Shay was no fool.

Perhaps—most assuredly—Jeta would disagree with her assessment, but Shay trusted her instincts, about Nadya most of all. And she was hurting terribly and doing an equally terrible job of hiding it.

Shay bit her lip as Nadya’s half-hearted smile faded the instant Shay made to look away. She kept walking alongside Shay through the market. Every once in a while, the sight of a juggler or a beautiful dress would bring out a little smile, but those moments quickly faded. Even speaking to the tailor, whom Shay had contracted before, elicited nearly nothing from Nadya. Shay backed away as the tailor drilled Nadya with questions about the mending job, keeping her partner in the edge of her sight as she headed to a nearby stall.

Shay could have found the place by scent alone. Spiced pumpkin flooded her senses as she gazed over the display of delicate pastries and hearty breads. Two men watched over the stall, both wearing easy smiles.

“Can we tempt you today, ma’am?” one asked in the thick language of the South Marches, of which Shay had some basic knowledge.

“Easily,” she replied. “Two rolls, please.”

She paid a silver for both and turned away from the stall, nearly running into Nadya. “Stars, you need to make some noise. Give me an early death of fright.”

“I see you left me for the food,” Nadya said, raising an eyebrow at the bundle of rice paper in Shay’s hands.

“I was keeping an eye on you, never worry. Here, it’s worth it.” Shay handed her one of the wrapped rolls.

Nadya sniffed it. “I can’t place the fruit.” She took a bite of the steaming orange bread. “It’s good, but what is it?”

“Pumpkin. Large orange fruit. Grows in winter down here. It’s the best damn thing about this part of the Marches.” Shay ate her roll in three bites, hardly savoring the cinnamon-tinged pumpkin bread. “I used to spend all the pocket money that Jeta gave me on pumpkin pastries when we traveled in this part of the world.”

Nadya snorted. “I can believe that.”

They wandered the market, pointing out bits and pieces to each other, passing the time as the tailor mended Nadya’s cloak. It was easy and comfortable, and Shay knew that it was all too much a facade.

Sadness still hung around the edges of their conversation, in the way Nadya hesitated before speaking, her faraway stares.

It wasn’t the first time in the months since they left Storm’s Quarry that Nadya had succumbed to the stupor that came with thoughts of the city. It seemed to always float just above her, ready to swoop in and overtake her at any moment.

Shay had never quite figured out how to pull Nadya back out from it.

The first time it happened, Shay did not handle it well.

“Do you even want to be here?” she had yelled, throwing her arm out. Poor choice of phrase, since at the time they had been arguing in a cow field of a cluster of farms on the far northern border of the Marches, a place no one really wanted to be.

“Of course I do!”

“Then why does a single mention of that cursed city have you gazing longingly north, like a lovestruck courtier? Why can’t you just leave it in the past? Move forward in your life? Move forward with me?” Shay added, her voice rising in pitch and breaking.

Nadya reached out to her. “There’s good there as well as bad, on both sides, and I need time to untangle it all. You got a clean break from Storm’s Quarry, from our people. I didn’t, Shay.” She must have realized the error of her words, and quickly added, “It was horrible, what happened to you. I’m not saying—”

“Yes, you are.” Shay drew a ragged breath. The air around her burned with heat. Tufts of grass, worn down by roaming herds, burst into flames at her feet. Shay knew she should clamp down on the fire, but at the moment, she didn’t want to be in control. She wanted the anger. “You still seem surprised that I hate them. Well, I do. And I always will. I didn’t save the whole stars-cursed city for the sake of it. I did it for you. If that’s not enough…”

“It is, Shay, it is, I just—”

“You just wish you were back there. Wish it would have all worked out differently.” Her words dripped with a poison that fueled the unruly fire within her. “Wish you could have stopped her wedding.”

Nadya stepped toward her, taking her hand despite the flames that danced around Shay. “I chose you, Shay. I chose you, and I have not regretted it once. I wish you would believe me,” she whispered.

Later that evening, Jeta had cuffed Shay upside the head. “Do not be foolish.”

“Why do you care about my love life?” Shay had replied, keeping her temper under control. Jeta brooked no mistakes when it came to her nivasigift.

The forgemaster was silent for a long time. “Because she steadies you. And now you need to do the same for her.”

“This was supposed to be her happy ending, don’t you get it? She’s supposed to put all that behind her and live her life. With me, without me”—those words had hurt, but she meant them—“it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she finally gets to be at peace.”

“Maybe she does not believe that she deserves peace.”

“Oh,” was all Shay could say at the time.

Now, months later, Shay kept returning to that conversation every time she needed to understand why Nadya could not sever whatever tied her to Storm’s Quarry. Knowing that Nadya did not regret her choice to travel south with Shay was not the same thing as knowing how to comfort her partner when the past overcame her.

“Just give it enough time,” she muttered. Another few months away from that cursed city, and maybe Nadya would finally accept that her life was now good.

And that she deserved it. It and a damned sight more.

“Time for what?” Nadya asked, breaking Shay out of her thoughts.

Cursing the other nivasi’ssupernatural hearing, Shay shook her head. “Time to get that cloak mended. Can’t let your secret identity get out. What would the neighbors say,” she teased gently.

“Nothing worse than what’s already said of us.” Nadya paused. “Or has been said.”

Shay bit back a sigh. It was not Nadya’s fault that she twisted every word to feed her dark thoughts. “Try not to dwell too much on that.” She paused. The middle of a crowded market in a godsforsaken town in the South Marches was not perhaps the best place to bring up Nadya’s melancholic tendencies, but Shay clasped the tendril of courage and began, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to speak to you about. I know how hard—”

“Nadezhda? Nadezhda Gabori?”

An unfamiliar voice, male and carrying the strong tones of Erevo, broke through the noise of the market square, cutting Shay off. She swallowed back a curse word and looked up from the spot of dirt she had been intently staring at.

Instantly, her feet shifted into a ready stance. She held her hands loosely at her sides, but the air shimmered ever so slightly with heat. Her blades lay just below the surface of her skin, tingling with power.

A young man, brown haired and wearing the bright white sash of a messenger, slipped through the crowds. “Miss Gabori?” he asked again.

At her side, Shay felt Nadya shift. While she still stood with casual ease, Shay knew she could lunge forward and snap a neck faster than anyone else could take a breath.

“And you are?” Nadya asked.

He looked between the two women, before his eyes settled on Nadya. “No one, miss. Only a messenger, here with a delivery from your father.”

“My father?” Nadya whispered, as if she didn’t dare believe it.

Shay felt her insides tighten with anger, and she hated herself for it. It’s not Nadya’s fault that she’s got a family, or at least part of one, that still cares for her. She did not drop her guard. It could still be a trap of some sort, and a not-very-small part of her wanted it to be.

“He sends this message to you, Miss Gabori.” The young man reached into the satchel belted around his chest and pulled out a tightly rolled parchment. A single seal adorned it, the wax depicting a sun. “The seal of the Guard,” Nadya muttered as she took the message. “Thank you.”

“Just doing my job, miss.”

“I bet,” Shay said, unable to keep her annoyance from flooding her words. “Waiting on this, are you? Well, take it and be off.” She tossed a single copper to the suddenly frowning messenger, and turned to Nadya. “You don’t need to read it, you know.”

Instantly, she regretted her words as Nadya’s posture turned defensive, and she cradled the parchment against her chest as if she feared Shay might burn it.

Truth be told, the thought had crossed Shay’s mind.

“Why wouldn’t I? Papa understood why I left. He knew it before I did, to be honest. He would not send me a missive if it wasn’t important.”

Shay took a deep breath. If she stuck her tongue in it now, Nadya might be furious at her for days. “All I meant was…you’re getting away from all that. You’re building a life.” With me. “You don’t have to go running just because Storm’s Quarry thinks it needs the Phoenix to solve all its problems. Not to mention, half that city wants you dead. They want me dead, too, by the way. There’s no way of knowing that this isn’t a trap to lure you back now that the Guard has regained its strength.”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Nadya whispered fiercely, clutching the parchment. Her other hand curled into a fist, white-knuckled fingers charged with enough strength to crush stone. “He’s Guardmaster now. He wouldn’t let them…”

“You don’t know that, Nadya,” Shay said softly, touching her shoulder.

Nadya jerked away. “I do.” But the waver in her voice betrayed her. With trembling fingers, she opened the parchment. She did not move when Shay stood over her shoulder to read the note.

 

Nadya,

I write in hopes that this will find you wherever you are traveling. Unfortunately, it is not a message of good tidings.

Your mother has entered the final stage of her illness. The medicine no longer soothes her cough, and her lungs struggle for every breath. It won’t be long now before she joins the Protectress for her journey to the next realm.

She calls for you, Nadezhda. She wishes to make it right before she passes.

I cannot expect you to come, not after how she threw you from our home, and I, to my great shame, let her. I can only hope you one day find it in your heart to forgive us. To forgive your people.

In case you wonder about the city, it is quiet, though I do not expect it will stay that way for long. Our people dance in the fountain square on clear nights, honoring the stars as they always do. Kesali asks after you. I know she worries for you and wishes to hear your voice.

I do not know when we will see each other again. Until then, you have my love.

Your Papa

 

Shay let out the breath she had been holding. “He’s not asking for the Phoenix. No impending crises, I guess.” No reason to go running back. “I am sorry about your mother, Nadya. She made her choice, and well…at least she regrets it.” More than my family.

Nadya acted like she hadn’t heard. “Nomori don’t dance,” she muttered, staring at the parchment.

“What?

“We don’t dance.” Nadya looked up at Shay, her eyes shining wide with worry. “Papa knows that. Kesali and I scandalized the Elders when we danced together at the last Arane Sveltura festival.”

Shay ignored the old flare of jealousy that rose in her chest at the mention of Kesali. “What does that have to do with your mother?”

“Nothing. Everything. Don’t you see? It’s a message.”

Shay raised an eyebrow. “Um, yes, it is.”

“Don’t act like a fool. It’s a secret message, coded in case it fell into the wrong hands.”

“And whose hands would those be?”

“I don’t know.” Nadya shook her head. “I don’t know what’s happening in Storm’s Quarry, but something is wrong. Perhaps my father and Kesali really are requesting our help.”

She can fix her own damn city.But Shay swallowed the words back. Nadya had made a promise to protect Storm’s Quarry when its need was great, and if she thought that time was now, Shay wasn’t going to be able to convince her otherwise.

And stars take her if she wasn’t going to end up following Nadya back to that cursed place.

“So your mother isn’t really dying?” Shay winced as the words came out far blunter than she had wanted.

Nadya shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe. She has been fighting against the damp for years now. The damp of the city always wins, in the end. But it might just serve as a cover to write the letter.”

“In case some unknown enemy gets ahold of it.”

“Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

Nadya threw her hands out into the air. “Talking to me like I’m a foolish child who believes in fairies. This is real, Shay. I know it. My father wouldn’t send this message if Kesali—if the city didn’t need me.”

Kesali. The name burned hotter than Shay’s own fire. The Nomori girl she once played with as a child turned Stormspeaker of their people turned Duchess-to-be of Storm’s Quarry. The woman who had captured Nadya’s heart for a long time, with whom, Nadya had admitted, she’d shared her first kiss. The Stormspeaker’s name should not have bothered Shay as much as it did, slipping under her skin like a swarm of stinging gnats; after all, Kesali was married to the Duke’s son, and Nadya had left the city before the wedding, choosing to come with Shay and the caravan.

Choosing Shay.

But it did hurt, a dull ache that expanded from her chest out to her fingertips. Because, within the darkest parts of Shay’s mind, she had always known that the instant Kesali called, Nadya would go running. And damn anyone who got in her way.

I guess I was right. Bitter gall rose up in her throat. “You’re going, then.”

“Yes, I have to. They need me,” Nadya said matter-of-factly. She tucked the parchment in her belt.

Sheneeds you.”

“What?”

“Kesali calls for you, so you run back to her. Like a puppy begging for scraps.” She knew her words were cruel, that Nadya needed support from her now, that she had been dealing with the messy knot of feelings that Storm’s Quarry left her, but Shay couldn’t hold her own bitterness back. “Never mind who you leave behind.”

Nadya’s eyes widened. Her mouth opened slightly, as if she had been struck. Apparently, unlike a physical blow, Shay’s words had the power to stagger her. In the midst of the bustling market, they stood facing one another in a world apart.

Shay hated herself for the surprised hurt her words had brought upon Nadya’s face. You’ve never been a good enough person for her. This just proves it.

“I’m not—Shay, I chose you,” Nadya said softly. “I’m not going back because of anything that might have happened between us.” She reached out to her, but Shay, as the voices rose in her mind—You’ve always been a terrible person. She deserves someone who trusts her, who stands by her side no matter what—batted the hand away, and Nadya let her.

“You keep saying you don’t regret your choice, but you have a poor way of showing it, you know.” Shay kicked at the ground. “I sure never asked for you to leave her, and I am not going to stand in your way. True love and all that, right?” Tears stung the edges of her eyes and burned away. “I have work to do. Travel safe, Nadya.”

She turned around and left Nadya standing in the middle of the market, gaping.

 

v

 

The forgemaster said nothing as Shay stormed into the smithy. Silently, she threw on one of the heavy aprons that hung on the crooked hooks fastened to wooden beams above them. She took up a pair of tongs, for show. She could reach into the white embers and pull out the melted ore with her bare heads. As strong as the anger and self-loathing that fought inside of her, she’d probably char the ore with her fire if she touched it.

If Jeta noticed that she’d been crying, or the slight jerkiness in her movements, she said nothing and got back to work.

They found their rhythm quickly, moving to the steady hiss of the bellows. Shay pulled each pipe out of the forge; Jeta took each one to the anvil, her hammer shaping the soft metal with expert swings. The pipe switched hands again, as Shay put it back to the heat for further shaping. Round and round they went until Jeta silently proclaimed a piece fit, sinking it into a vat of water, calling forth a storm of steam that filled the silence for a few seconds.

Hours passed. Shay fell into the familiar patterns of the smithy. Despite all her complaints, she had always loved Jeta’s work. It allowed her to pull back from the world, to discard her thoughts, to lose herself in the intricate movements of the forge.

As she worked, her mind quieted, her inner flame slowly patterning itself after the consistent embers of the forge. Shay breathed in iron-tinged smoke, and the knot in her stomach loosened a bit.

Nadya would go to Storm’s Quarry, she knew. To reunite with her mother, who had turned her out after learning of her nivasiblood, if nothing else. But Nadya was sure of the note’s hidden meaning, and nothing Shay could say would dissuade her of it. Shay’s choice, therefore, lay in whether or not she chose to follow.

But was it worth risking her heart for someone who might run after another?

Damn it all, Nadya was worth it. Shay shook her head at her own foolishness. There had never been a choice, had there? Stormspeaker or not, Shay would follow Nadya past the edge of the world.

“I’m being an idiot again, aren’t I?”

The forgemaster remained silent, only the slight shrug as she bent over the anvil indicating she had heard her apprentice speak.

Shay knew from long experience this was an invitation to keep talking. “Maybe my worst fears are true. Maybe she’ll finally see me for what I am. Maybe she’ll run back into the Stormspeaker’s arms, and I will be left standing outside the gates of that damned city alone. Forced to come back to you and slave away at a forge for the rest of my life,” she joked, but her raw tone made the forced levity fall flat.

“So do not go.”

Shay wiped her sleeve against her eyes. “That’s the end of it, isn’t it? Only thing that would hurt more than seeing her fall into Kesali’s arms is letting her go, knowing I was the one who chose to give her up. I saved Storm’s Quarry for her. Faced my old family for her. The least I can do is trust her now. Try to be the person she thinks I am.” Shay shrugged off the apron. “I’ve got to go.”

Jeta’s hand closed in around her wrist, her callused hand a familiar comfort. The forgemaster’s dark, unreadable eyes softened as they met hers. “You are that person, Shay. Never doubt it.” She released her grip and turned back to forge. “Be sure to say farewell this time.”

Shay swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. “Of course.”

 

v

 

Nadya was alone in the canvas tent the three of them had been given in the caravan line, a spacious dwelling with room for a fire pit and several bedrolls. Of course, their tent currently only had one bed, as Jeta preferred to sleep in the forge and Nadya and Shay preferred each other’s warmth.

Here in this tent, as they traveled south with the caravan, they’d first made love. Slowly, in the beginning, they learned one another as they fumbled through the awkwardness and hesitation. Time passed and Shay soon memorized Nadya’s every curve and freckle. She’d learned that Nadya’s hesitance to touch her came not from indecision, but the fear of hurting her. I trust you, Shay had whispered over and over again, I trust you, Nadya. Eventually, Nadya began to believe her. As the sun finished setting, the small fire within their tent illuminated Nadya’s silhouette as she moved through the space, throwing her few belongings into a knapsack. Shay stood outside, watching her. The words she needed kept falling away as she tried to compose an apology.

I am sorry I was such an oaf. I am sorry I thought you would leave me for Kesali. I am sorry for not trusting you after promising that I did. Every line felt inauthentic, and Shay swore aloud.

Nadya’s silhouette stiffened and turned toward the tent flap, and Shay silently cursed her nivasihearing.

“Shay?” Nadya called, and Shay’s heart broke at the hope in her voice. Instead of hating her, as Shay’s behavior warranted, Nadya seemed hopeful that she might get to see her.

Screwing up what remained of her courage, Shay pushed the flap aside and walked in. The flames of the small fire pit rose and flickered, feeding off her far-flung emotions. Shay took several breaths and tried to calm herself. Setting the entire caravan camp ablaze might be a welcome distraction, but it would not solve anything.

“Nadya, I—”

“You have soot on your face,” Nadya cut her off gently, her eyes saying, It’s okay, I forgive you, in a way that words never could.

Shay smiled in spite of herself. “Too embarrassed to be seen with me, then?”

“Never.” Nadya caught her arm in the nearly too strong grip that Shay had grown to love. “Not now, not at Storm’s Quarry. I am not doing this for Kesali.”

Shay wanted to say, I know, I know you would never leave me, but the words stuck in her throat. She was spared having to answer as Jeta entered their tent. In her hands, she held Nadya’s armor, as perfect as it had been the day she forged it.

“Thank you,” Nadya said quietly, taking it carefully. She placed it upon her pack, where her newly mended cloak lay.

“I guess it’s farewell, then.” Shay cleared her throat. She’d spent plenty of time away from Jeta in the years since the older woman took her in. But this…this felt more permanent somehow. She had a terrible feeling curling around the base of her spine, that whatever had transpired in Storm’s Quarry, whatever the message from the Guardmaster meant, she’d lose this.

“For now,” Jeta said, as if she sensed Shay’s churning thoughts. She wrapped a single arm around her apprentice. Shay breathed in the scent of ash and iron, of safety, as she had come to know in the years since Jeta rescued her from Storm’s Quarry.

“For now,” Shay agreed, releasing her. She hoped her words were true.

“Nadya.”

Beside her, Nadya stiffened. Shay didn’t blame her. She was pretty sure this was the first time Jeta had spoken to her partner by name.

“Yes, Forgemaster?” Nadya said, eyes flitting to Shay for a brief moment.

“Protect her.”

“I don’t need protection,” Shay argued, indignant at the suggestion. She had saved Nadya plenty of times; not to mention, when they’d fought at first meeting, Shay had been winning before they recognized each other. She could take care of herself.

But Jeta ignored her, staring intently at Nadya, her black eyes unreadable. The soft flames of the fire pit illuminated the deep lines of Jeta’s face, giving her an age that she rarely seemed.

“Please, protect her. In this life, she matters most to me, and I am entrusting her to you. Do not take that lightly.” The forgemaster’s gaze never wavered from Nadya as she spoke.

Shay’s protests died on her lips as Jeta’s words sank in. “Oh.” Heat rushed to her face. She knew that Jeta cared for her; it certainly was not her work ethic or talent at the forge that made Jeta put up with her for the past years. To hear it so clearly articulated, in a way so unlike the stoic forgemaster—Shay swallowed back the lump that had formed in her throat.

Beside her, Nadya solemnly nodded, as if accepting a responsibility from the Duke of Storm’s Quarry himself. “I understand.”

Shay glanced from one to the other as the two most important people in her life, the two only important people, shared a look that she hoped to one day understand as well.