“And… he never tried it on your mother? Or the queen he was with just now?” I asked.

Horatio shook his head. “No. Nenia, whom you saw just now, is his eighth wife, while my mother is his ninth… and sworn last. Though his word means nothing.”

“Why did he never try it with them?” I asked.

“Because after seven lost wives, he’d had enough experience to know that they wouldn’t be successful either, especially since they hailed from the same bloodline as a previous wife who died.”

Ugh. So he married, like, women who were sisters or cousins?

“Then of course,” Horatio went on, “the dragons showed up offering the whereabouts of Nuriya. I’d never seen my father so happy as that day… and now he is preparing to wed her before beginning the mutation.”

My head spun. This was all turning out to be far more complex than I had hoped. In spite of still being in shock, I could not lose awareness of our rapidly escaping time.

I rubbed my face with my hands, taking in a deep breath and trying to calm my brain. I looked up again and addressed Horatio. “You said before that what you would reveal to me was the key to freeing the Nasiris without killing Cyrus. How?” I couldn’t understand how what I’d just witnessed could be considered a weakness. If anything, it just made the obstacle ahead of us seem even more impossible.

Horatio took a seat opposite me, resting his elbows on his knees and looking at me intently. “I believe that his transformation is the cause of his unparalleled powers. How else could a single jinni uphold a bond over all the Nasiris at once—who are certainly not considered a weak clan by any stretch?” He shifted his gaze to Aisha, then back to me. “Besides that, since discovering his secret, I have observed him as much as possible without arousing suspicion. I visited his apartment at odd times, most times watching without him even knowing. I have noticed that he has a ritual of drinking a bright orangey-red liquid… liquid that’s almost the exact color of the tip of his stinger.”

Aisha and I stared at him, wondering exactly what he was implying. Aisha voiced where my thoughts were turning before I could. “Y-you think he’s drinking… his own venom?”

Horatio nodded slowly, grimacing. “I don’t know where else he’d get it from.”

That was a visual I did not need. God. Can this story get any more gross?

“He drinks it like a ritual, morning, afternoon and evening, and he keeps a stash of it in his kitchen,” Horatio continued.

“I’ve seen him drink it too,” I murmured. “And he’s feeding it to Nuriya.”

“Ugh!” Aisha cried.

“So you’ve already done your own share of spying?” Horatio said to me.

I nodded.

Horatio’s nose curled in distaste. “Then apparently, she has already proven that she can withstand the poison… In any case, flooding his veins with venom must be key to his strength, otherwise he would never drink the vile stuff so religiously—and it is vile, believe me. I’ve smelt it,” he added in an undertone. “Since the poison originates in his tail, that would seem the logical place to target, if he was caught in his physical form, his full physical form. Damaging it somehow, maybe even depleting its stock of poison, might severely weaken him. At least, enough for the Nasiris to use their own powers to break free from his bond.”

A span of silence followed.

“So,” Aisha began, her voice unsteady, “how and when would we get him in his physical state, his full physical state?”

“It would have to be during one of his visits to his wives. He isn’t scheduled for another one until the day after tomorrow—my mother.”

The day after tomorrow. I cursed beneath my breath.

“We cannot wait that long,” Aisha voiced for me, glancing at me nervously. “It has to be tonight.”

“Tonight?” The doubt in Horatio’s eyes made my stomach clench. He stood up and began pacing up and down, slowly, thoughtfully. “In that case… I might have another idea. It could kill us all, but it’s an idea nonetheless.”

I held my breath, waiting for him to continue.

“However, we could not do it without Nuriya’s help.”

I raised a brow in question.

“On the night of the wedding, it’s tradition for husband and wife to reveal each other fully to themselves,” Horatio explained to me. “It’s also the same night that—according to my mother—he has historically attempted the mutation… But I’m guessing that they would have some time alone first.”

“We’d have to catch him before that.” Aisha shuddered.

“I’ve no idea if this will work. Usually royal weddings are planned many weeks in advance, and I’m not sure my father would want to rush his wedding with Nuriya, considering what a landmark he considers it to be. I can’t help but think he’d want everything polished to perfection. However, if the request came from Nuriya… you just never know. In any case, we could try.”

“Try to get Nuriya to convince Cyrus to hold the wedding tonight?” Aisha’s brows raised so high they almost disappeared into her hairline.

“As I said,” Horatio muttered, “it’s a long shot. It’s up to you whether you want to take the risk.”

“We’ll take the risk,” I answered immediately.

Risk wasn’t something that scared me anymore. Failure was.

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