He no longer held it, so she smacked at the water, spraying it all ways. Frenzied. Desperate.
Still Caden screamed, “YES YES YES YES.”
The chain fell. Right onto his collarbone, and when Safi ripped her gaze up, she found Vaness holding an indifferent hand outstretched. Then the empress strode away, and the iron that had bound Caden chased after her like dogs at the heel.
Lev dived in to lift her commander while Safi clumsily groped the chain around Caden’s neck. Once the two ends were near, magic whispered between them. They fused together, and instantly, the darkness sucked inward, moving in vague spirals back through the scars across Caden’s face, his neck, his hands.
One of which, Safi now realized, was holding hers tight. White-knuckled and shaking. A grip to hold through hell-fire and back.
His eyes fluttered opened, the pupils swallowing everything, and he said, voice ragged and raw, “Thank you … domna. Thank you.”
Iseult had no idea what to do with the child.
When Aeduan had found Iseult, she had been standing on the Amonra’s shore watching the mountain bat streak off to the south. Her stomach had bottomed out with surprise. With fear.
He was so quiet. So Threadless.
He was also bloodied. At Iseult’s wide eyes, he said, “It isn’t my blood.” Then he beckoned for her to follow.
So she had, to a cluster of elderberry bushes tucked beneath a massive goshorn oak near the shore. Threads had pulsed within, a steady terrified gray. Iseult had ducked into the branches and found a girl huddled against the oak’s silver roots, almost blending into the tree. A trick of the light, no doubt, yet it had taken Iseult three blinks and a scrub at her eyes to get a good look. To establish the girl’s age, her frailty, her numb detachment.
The girl looked six years old, perhaps seven. She also looked lost and shattered. Her Threads hovered with endless shades of pale gray fear. No other colors. No other emotions.
Aeduan strode into the elderberries behind Iseult. He pushed past her to crouch beside the girl. “Where do you come from, Little Sister?” He spoke crisp Nomatsi. “Did the Red Sails take your family?”
No response. The child was staring with big hazel eyes at Iseult.
A child. A child. Iseult had no idea what to do with a child.
Iseult dropped her rucksack to the knobby earth. They needed a proper shelter, and the girl needed clothes. Shoes. A fire wouldn’t hurt either—assuming they could safely manage one with the armies approaching.
As Iseult inched toward Aeduan, the child’s Threads flared brighter, hints of white panic within the gray. She backed deeper into the roots.
“I won’t hurt you,” Iseult said, schooling her face into what she hoped was an expression of calm.
The girl’s Threads didn’t change.
“Monk.” Iseult wasn’t sure why she used Aeduan’s title. She supposed she didn’t want to utter Bloodwitch in front of the girl.
Aeduan stood. The child tensed, and when he turned away, she grabbed for him. Her fingers crushed into his cloak.
His expression didn’t change as he looked back. The stony stillness remained, yet he offered a gentle, “I’m not going anywhere, Little Owl.” Her grip unfurled.
And sunset pink softly hummed through her Threads. A dazzling splash amid the gray. The Threads that bind.
“What is it?” Aeduan asked, drawing Iseult’s attention back to the angles of his face. His pale blue eyes looked almost white in this frail light.
“Wh-why,” Iseult began, only to instantly clap her lips shut. She was tired. The mountain bat had unsettled her. “Why,” she tried again, steadier now, “is this child here? What do you plan to do with her?”
“I don’t know.”
Iseult peered sideways at the girl, whose wide eyes were pinned on them. With mud mottled across her pale Nomatsi skin, she looked exactly as Aeduan had called her: like Moon Mother’s littlest sister, Owl.
She needs a bath, Iseult thought.
“Did you find her with the Red Sails?” She looked back at Aeduan.
He nodded. “The same ones who hunted you.”
“And … w-where are they now?”
“Gone.” It was all the Bloodwitch said, but Iseult didn’t need more. He had killed them, and that explained the blood.
Iseult knew she ought to be shocked. Horrified. Repulsed. Life was not meant to be claimed by anyone but the Moon Mother, yet … she felt only cool relief. Corlant’s men couldn’t hunt her anymore. “Can you smell the girl’s family?” she pressed. “Or her tribe? Perhaps we can return her to them.”
When Aeduan said nothing, Iseult slid her gaze back to him. He watched her, his face immobile. His chest immobile too, breath held. Whatever he thought, she couldn’t guess.
A flash of heat raced up her spine. She snapped, “What? Can you or can you not track her family?”
The edge of Aeduan’s mouth ticked down. “I can track them. There are traces of a tribe on her dress. But…” Aeduan’s attention moved behind Iseult. His pupils pulsed. “Her family is north. Back the way we came.”
Iseult’s nose twitched. “If we don’t continue on now, though, we will not be able to pass. The Raider ships will land, their armies will block our way.”
“They will block your way, yes.”
It took Iseult three heartbeats to sort out what he meant. And once she did, ice dropped hard into her belly. A soft exhale escaped her lips.