She was drinking the rain.
Merik’s rage vanished. Dread swallowed it whole, and he tore out the Hasstrel agreement. The signatures were still there.
Of course they are, he thought, annoyed with himself for caring. Safiya isn’t bleeding. Yet his fingers trembled—and distantly he wondered why that might be. Perhaps this fear had nothing to do with the contract.
That thought tickled at the base of his skull—and he hastily tamped it down, buried it deep, and returned the contract to his pocket. Then he dug out the leg-iron keys. Whatever the reason for this hollow fear, Merik would dwell on it later—along with his unshakable worry over King Serafin, Vivia, and Kullen.
Right now, though, this punishment had to end.
Crouching beside Safiya, Merik unlocked the first fetter. She seemed wearily surprised. “I am free?”
“Free to stay locked in your cabin.” Merik undid the remaining irons and then stood. “Get up.”
She drew in her soaked legs and tried to rise. The ship rocked. She toppled forward.
Merik lunged for her.
Her skin was slick and cold, her body shivering. With a grunt, he hefted her up, cradled her close. His men watched on, and Merik didn’t miss the nod of approval from Hermin as he strode toward the ladder belowdecks.
The domna had served her punishment; the men respected that.
Safiya’s face was near, her eyelashes thick and wet. Her damp clothes rubbed against Merik’s skin, and her breaths were shallow. Merik firmly ignored it all, focusing on getting one foot in front of the next until at last he pushed into the darkened passenger room. Iseult slept, shuddering on her pallet.
“Iz,” Safiya murmured, shifting in Merik’s arms and straining for her Threadsister. Merik carried her to the pallet, bent slightly, and then dropped her. She fell beside Iseult, who shook awake.
As Iseult scrambled to help Safiya, Merik whirled about and left the room, telling himself that Safiya was taken care of. That he wouldn’t think of her now. That he wouldn’t think of her ever again.
Yet when at last he reached the tiller of his father’s ship and caught sight of the Lonely Bastard piercing the horizon ahead, his arms were still warm—his neck still humming from Safiya’s grip.
* * *
Before Safi had returned, Iseult had been trapped in her nightmares again …
Sever, sever, twist and sever.
Fingers tore at Iseult. Yanked at her hair, her dress, her flesh.
Threads that break, Threads that die!
An arrow ripped through her arm; pain exploded through her entire being. And magic, magic—black, festering magic—
“Nasty dream you’re having.” The shadow’s voice jolted Iseult from the nightmare.
“You tremble and quake so much today,” the shadow continued, a syrup on its voice that was overly gleeful. “What upsets you? It wasn’t just the dream—you have that one all the time.”
Iseult tried to turn away, but every direction she shifted, the shadow followed. Every kick or mental thrust, the shadow avoided. Every desperate retreat, the shadow dug its talons in deeper.
And on and on the shadow babbled—or rather she babbled, for the shadow was a woman. A fellow Threadwitch, convinced that she and Iseult were somehow alike.
It was that talk that frightened Iseult the most. The possibility that this strange voice was like her. That maybe the shadow understood Iseult’s private pains more than anyone else.
Which of course made Iseult wonder if she wasn’t just imagining the entire thing. Going crazy while all of her hopes for the future trickled away between her fingers.
Or maybe Iseult was finally buckling beneath the Threads of the world—her ordinary heart pounded to dust.
“You are upset about your tribe,” the shadow declared matter-of-factly, stumbling on Iseult’s most recent memories. “My tribe pushed me out too, you know, because I wasn’t like the other Threadwitches. I couldn’t make Threadstones or control my feelings, so the tribe didn’t want me. That’s why you left yours, isn’t it?”
The curiosity on the shadow’s voice was double edged. Iseult knew she shouldn’t answer … yet she couldn’t help it when the shadow asked again: “That’s why you left, isn’t it?”
The urge to tell the truth—about her shame with Gretchya, her jealousy of Alma—tickled Iseult’s throat. Why couldn’t she fight this shadow? Use that frustration, she told herself almost frantically. Use that to fight her.
Iseult ripped her dream body sideways and latched on to the first mindless memory she could find: her multiplication tables. Nine times one equals nine. Nine times two equals eighteen—
But the shadow simply laughed.
“It’s silly that we’re expected to feel nothing,” the shadow continued, her tone dulcet once more. “I don’t believe the stories—the ones that say we don’t have Heart-Threads and Thread-families. Of course we do! We just can’t see them is all. Why would the Moon Mother give all of her children such powerful bonds, but then exclude us?”
“I don’t know.” Iseult was grateful for that easy question. If she answered it—if she seemed to cooperate—maybe the shadow would leave.
She didn’t. Instead, the shadow laughed her gleeful laugh and cried, “Why, look! Talking of Thread-families upsets you, Iseult. Why? Why?”
Nine times four equals thirty-six. Nine times five—
“Oh, it’s your mother! And her apprentice. They have left you hurt and broken. Goodness, Iseult, you are so easy to read. All your fears gather at the surface, and I can skim them off like fat from a borgsha pot. Here, I see that you couldn’t make Threadstones, so your mother sent you away. And, oh—what is this?” The shadow was exultant now, and no matter how wildly Iseult fought, she couldn’t keep her thoughts locked away.