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“If I lack the initiative,” Safi whispered, the words tumbling out before she could stop them, “then it’s because you made me this way.”

“Too true.” Eron smiled down at her, a rueful thing that frizzed with honesty. “But don’t hate me for that, Safiya. Love me…” His arms opened idly. “And dread me. It’s the Hasstrel way, after all. Now finish getting dressed. We leave at the next chime.”

Without another word, Eron stalked past Safi and left the room. Safi watched him go. She made herself watch his brisk gait and broad back.

Safi sank into the injustice for several blistering seconds. Unambitious? Lacking initiative? Perhaps that was true when it came to living in a frozen castle amidst a world of power-hungry nobility and ever-watchful Hell-Bards, but not when it came to a life with Iseult.

Safi pulled out the Carawen book once more and flipped it open. The piestra shone up at her, blooming like a rose at sunset. This page in particular was important, and Safi simply had to sort out why …

She dragged her finger down the ranks and divisions of monks. Mercenary Monk, Teacher Monk, Guardian Monk, Artisanal Monk … Her fingers paused on Healer Monk. It was one such monk who’d found Iseult when she’d fled her tribe. Iseult had gotten lost at a crossroads north of Veñaza City, and a kind Healer Monk had helped her find her way.

And that old crossroads was beside the lighthouse that the girls now used. Iseult must be planning to leave Veñaza City altogether and return to the usual hideout.

Safi dropped the book. Her head lolled back. She couldn’t go there yet—she had to get through tonight first. She had to get this Bloodwitch off her trail and her uncle firmly taken care of. Then, with no worry of pursuit ever again, she could head north of the city and find her Threadsister.

Safi exhaled sharply, head lowering and body shifting toward the mirror. Eron wanted a dutiful domna, did he? Well, Safi could give him that. Throughout her childhood, the Cartorran nobility had seen her as a quiet, embarrassed thing, cowering behind her uncle while her toes tapped and her legs bounced.

But Safi wasn’t that girl anymore, and the Hell-Bards had no power in this empire. So Safi puffed out her chest, pleased at how the gown emphasized her shoulders. How the sleeves stopped high enough to reveal her palms, striped with as many calluses as any soldier.

Safi was proud of her hands, and she couldn’t wait for the doms and domnas to stare at them with revulsion. For the nobility to feel her fingers, rough as sandstone, when she danced with them.

For one night, Safi could be Domna of Cartorra. Hell, she would be a rutting empress if it got her back to Iseult, and away from the Bloodwitch.

After tonight, Safiya fon Hasstrel would be free.

EIGHT

Iseult stared at the dark mane of her brindle mare, one hand on the reins and the other held high in a poor attempt to stem her wound’s bleeding.

The canal beside her glowed orange with the setting sun, and the stench of Veñaza City was finally starting to fade from her nostrils—as was the day’s heat. Soon, Iseult would leave this damp marshland entirely and enter the wild meadows that surrounded her Nomatsi home. Mosquitoes would swarm her, and the horseflies would feast.

The traffic flooding from the guard’s eastern checkpoint had been thick enough for Iseult to slink out of the capital unseen. Then, once the roads had emptied of people, she’d hopped onto her new steed and urged the mare into a full gallop.

The bleeding from the cut on her palm hadn’t staunched, so she’d torn off the olive trim of her skirt and wrapped her hand. Each time the blood soaked through, she’d ripped off more cloth. Bandaged the wound more tightly—and then held her hand even higher.

Only one night, she told herself over and over, a refrain thundering in time to the horse’s four-beat gallop, then the three-beat canter. Finally, two leagues from the city limits, when the mare was dark with sweat, Iseult had dropped to a two-beat trot. One night, one night.

Beneath that percussive reminder pulsed a desperate hope that Iseult hadn’t somehow endangered Safi by pointing her to the old lighthouse. Split-second plans weren’t her strong point—and that’s what the message to Habim had been. Haphazard. Rushed.

Eventually, Iseult reached a telltale copse of alders and slowed the mare to a walk before sliding off the saddle. Her upper thighs seared, her lower back groaned. She hadn’t ridden in weeks—and not at such a speed in months. She could still feel her teeth rattling from the gallop. Or maybe that was the buzz of the cicadas in the whitethorns.

Though it looked like Iseult followed nothing more than a game trail winding through the grass, she knew it for what it was: a Nomatsi road.

She moved more slowly now, careful to read the Nomatsi markers as they came. A stick hammered into the dirt that looked almost accidental—it meant a claw-toothed bear trap at the next bend in the path. A cluster of “wild” morning glories on the left side of the path meant a fork in the road ahead—east would lead to a Poisonwitch mist, west to the settlement.

Following this path would get the Bloodwitch off of Iseult’s tail for good. Then, after a few hours within the settlement’s thick walls, Iseult could set out once more to meet Safi.

Although the Dalmotti Empire technically allowed Nomatsis to live as they pleased—so long as their caravans stayed at least twenty miles outside of any city—they were also declared “animals.” They had no legal protection yet plenty of Dalmotti hatred to contend with. So to say the Midenzis did not take kindly to outsiders was a vast understatement. As one of the only Nomatsi tribes to have settled down and stopped nomadic traveling, the Midenzis had found a safe niche here and clung to it.

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