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I could see from the look on her face that by now I’d perked the witch’s interest enough to be able to demand my own terms. I hadn’t been sure exactly how she would take to this information about the Bloodless, but it seemed that she was truly passionate about her profession and the discovery of a new species was both exciting and valuable to her.

“What do you want?” she asked, sitting up straighter in her chair. “Are you ill in some way?”

“I’m not ill,” I said, even as I wished that in this myriad of bottles surrounding me there was a cure for broken hearts. “I have three requests to make of you. First, I want you to examine the creature I have brought here and, to the best of your medical knowledge, tell us how you think this species could be killed. Second, after you have examined the specimen, I want you to help exterminate the ship that is filled with these monsters… except for three of them, which I will select. These three are not to be harmed, which brings me to my third request: after we have exterminated the rest, I want you to bring those I’ve chosen back here to your island, keep them somewhere safe, and try to find a cure for them.”

There was a span of silence as she took in my words.

“A cure?” She looked worryingly dubious about this.

“Yes,” I said, gazing at her hopefully. “If you can’t find a cure, then I don’t know who will be able to… But even if you aren’t able to find a cure, I need you to promise me that these four will remain safe.”

There was another agonizing pause before she nodded her head slowly. “All right,” she murmured. “You take me to this new species and be clear about those you wish me to take under my wing, and I will do so. In truth, despite the devastation you’ve described these ‘Bloodless’ are capable of wreaking, I’m more interested in examining them and taking samples for research than slaughtering them all outright.”

“Good,” I said, breathing out. I wasn’t sure exactly how many minutes had passed since leaving Aisha, or even what the impatient jinni considered as “too much time”, but I didn’t want her coming after me before I’d managed to seal the deal with the witch. Aisha was already suspicious of me. I needed to speed up. “Now, the specimen I have brought for you is locked in a box, down on your shore near the harbor.” I hesitated, bracing myself for what I had to tell her next. “The thing is, I’m not here alone. I’m here with a jinni.”

The witch’s face instantly soured. “What are you doing with a jinni?”

Getting into the full history of how we met would be wading into uncomfortable and dangerous waters, especially because some of that history involved me murdering Arron—who had apparently been a good acquaintance of the witch. I was sure that she wouldn’t take kindly to the news that I’d slit his throat on her very own beach.

So rather than explain the whole saga, I simply said, “Let’s just say that I owe her a favor… But for the most part, she is working for the same thing that we will be. She wants to stop the infestation and nip it in the bud before it continues to spread. I’m certainly not ignorant of the discord that exists between your kind and jinn, and I’ll try to prevent her from getting in your way as much as I can…” I paused, swallowing hard. “There is one thing that I must mention though. She doesn’t know that four of them used to be close companions of mine and, for reasons that would take me too long to explain, I can’t reveal this to her. If I did, she’d likely target them first.”

Of course, Aisha already knew about Arletta, but at least the jinni was still oblivious to the brothers… As long as she remained ignorant of who they were, they wouldn’t be specifically targeted by her. They would just be three more pale faces among the crowd of Bloodless.

“I will point them out to you discreetly,” I continued, “and it should look like they are your own selection of Bloodless you wish to examine, completely uninfluenced by me. One of the four is Braithe—whom I have brought with me here as the specimen.”

This third request of mine thankfully worked to my advantage. The witch was naturally against anything that the jinni was for, so it wasn’t difficult to persuade her to agree to help me preserve Hans’ siblings.

Hans. I thought of him still stuck in that horrid cave back in Cruor, along with yet another crowd of Bloodless. They were, in fact, the original Bloodless. If they ever got out, they could start spreading another epidemic, but… until somebody went and let them out, I didn’t see how they would escape. God knew their prison was well hidden. When I’d first discovered that Hans was being held prisoner by the Elders after the war between Cruor and Aviary, I had scoured the entire realm for days on end. I would never have found the cave if one of the Elders had not escorted me there.

Of course, I had not told Aisha about Hans, or the cave in Cruor that was filled with more Bloodless. And I certainly wasn’t going to—I would tell neither her, nor the witch, unless there arose a specific reason to. My desperate hope was that the witch would keep Hans’ siblings safe, that she would discover at least some form of cure for them that could bring them closer to their former selves, and that I would somehow rid myself of Aisha after the ship of monsters was destroyed so that I could go and reclaim Hans.

Together, the witch and I worked out a plan of action. She also asked me what she was to do with the siblings if, after her experimentation, she failed to find a cure for them. I didn’t have an answer for her other than that they still should not be killed. I just wanted to take things one step at a time because I couldn’t bear to consider the possibility that there might be no way out of this for them. For Hans. For us.

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