IN THE SHADOW of the Black Tower, Shadyia nudged the shoulder of the scruffy, tired woman strolling by her side. When Deresi turned her head, she offered her a spirited wave. Hello, my sweet friend. They both needed a hot bath and a good night’s rest, but that hardly mattered. Deresi was alive. They had each survived the horrors of Mirrikh’s labyrinth with whole skins and sound minds.
Deresi crossed her eyes and stuck out the tip of her tongue.
Shadyia shifted her attention to the damp street. Yes, I know. I should stop gawking at you. She couldn’t help it. Her fingers ached to get lost in the tangles of Deresi’s red curls; her ears yearned for the sounds of Deresi’s passion, and her skin craved the warmth they had not shared often enough. I almost lost you. The death they had faced during the past two days made her crave another night, like the smallest fox in a litter peering at the last quail egg. Words Shadyia had spoken that morning they lay entwined in arms, legs and blankets—the morning Deresi had pledged her love—coursed through Shadyia’s veins and spurred her heart to beat. I will never leave you, and I will always come for you. Shadyia had never made such a promise to anyone before.
She yanked her thoughts from the past and listened in on the men walking a few paces in front of her. Aaron was asking his apprentice what it had been like to hear Verthandi’s voice in his thoughts.
“I didn’t know it was his voice,” Benjamin replied. “I thought it was mine.”
Aaron swept a hand through his graying hair and narrowed his gaze at the young man. “But you had no idea how to open the tower. Didn’t it seem odd to you that these thoughts were in your head?”
Benjamin shrugged. “It does now. At the time, I thought I was just guessing, experimenting. Do this, turn that, push, pull—and then the doors opened. I couldn’t believe it.”
Shadyia seized the pommel of her blacksteel sword. She couldn’t believe Benjamin had left Janell outside while he bumbled around inside the Black Tower. Janell may be a fellow sister of the Silver Rose, but for all of Madam Amrita’s training, she was a mewling kitten lost in a rainstorm. Anderholm was no city to walk about alone, even for a veteran with a drawn sword and a stern gaze on every dark alley. Shadyia tamped down her anger. If Benjamin hadn’t opened the doors of the tower and entered, she, Deresi and Aaron would now be facing a slow death from thirst and starvation in Mirrikh’s oubliette, the place the ancient magician had used to forget people who had angered him.
Aaron led them north. They followed the smooth stones of Queen’s Way, the scrape of their footfalls the only sounds in the damp streets. Shadyia glanced around. Too quiet. Today was the second day of Samprina and so the citizens were either fasting in their homes or visiting relatives in the country, but the silence didn’t feel right. Anderholm was a city of noise. The clap of hooves, the roll of wagons, merchants bellowing over one another, armed guards hollering to clear a path for a snobbish lord on horseback, the squeal of orphaned children, the bark of dogs—chaos was the lifeblood of Anderholm. Quiet did not become the trade capitol of the northern realms.
“Here, this way.” Aaron turned them down a long alley between the Ministry of Art and a pottery warehouse. As Shadyia recalled, the alley ended at the Rum Barrel Inn near the Bridge of Swans. Aaron’s Featherquill Manor, packed with the historical books he had written over his many centuries, was a short walk up a winding road past the other mansions in the Artisan Quarter. When they arrived, he had promised to treat them to an evening of relaxing and recovering. Shadyia blew a gust through her lips at the thought. After two days and a night in the dark, twisting halls of labyrinth, pits of spikes hidden under false floors and shadow beasts that drained the life from their victims, she craved a quiet evening in Deresi’s arms more than all the gold in Anderholm. I just hope Janell made it back there without trouble.
Midway through the alley, a single-horse cart, driven by two cloaked men, rolled toward them. Shadyia and the others flattened themselves against the wall. She turned her head as it passed. Some mortified soul lay wrapped in a heavy cloth in the back of the cart. Likely the men were gravediggers on their way to—The corpse! Shadyia recognized its white boots.
“Stop that cart!”
The driver snapped his reins against the horse as Aaron grabbed the air and twisted his fist. The wheels locked and dragged until the cart screeched to a halt. The driver lashed his reins again, but the horse only reared. The men, one thin and the other large, jumped back off the bench, stepped around the wrapped figure and dropped to the street. They threw open their cloaks and pulled out a pair of long knives. Shadyia drew her blacksteel sword as she and Aaron met them halfway. Aaron twisted his hands, palms outward, and the fat one was hurled against the wall by an unseen force. The other stood dumbfounded until Shadyia knocked the knife out of his hand with a downward slash and pressed the tip of her sword under his chin. “Over there, move,” she said, urging the driver, a man with dark lines tattooed on half his face, to stand next to his fat companion. He lifted his hands in surrender and complied.
The force holding the large man released, but Shadyia moved the tip and pricked the fleshy pouch under his chin. “Drop the knife.”
The knife clattered to the street and the fat man lifted his portly arms.
“Dee, check the cart.”
Deresi snatched the thin man’s knife off the ground and leaped into the cart. Shadyia heard her cut the ropes. She glanced down the alley to make sure no others were coming, but only Benjamin stood there, ringing his hands and looking as if he were not sure what he should do.
Silence from the cart drove Shadyia to risk a glance. Deresi was sitting back on her heels, her shoulders slumped, staring down at the person she had partly exposed beneath the cloth. “Dee, who is it? Is it Janell?”
Deresi’s mouth moved but no sound came out. “I…”
What’s wrong with her? “Dee!”
“I can’t tell!” Deresi briefly covered her lips with trembling fingers. “I think it is.”
Benjamin charged, jolting Shadyia as he passed, and leaped into the cart.
A freezing wave passed over Shadyia. Deresi couldn’t tell? She glanced at Aaron, who had remained at her side, then faced the portly man and jabbed him with the tip. “What did you do to her?”
The fat man’s jaw shuddered and a drop of blood leaked down his pouch. “She asked to join us.”
Shadyia nearly stabbed him again when Benjamin’s wail echoed along the alley. “Mentor, please help!”
Aaron rushed the cart as Shadyia coiled back her sword, daring either man to move. She glanced as Aaron further pulled open the cloth, stained dark red on the inside, to reveal a naked body. Benjamin wailed anew as Aaron placed a hand on her forehead. Deresi scooted back into the corner of the cart and stared at Janell, as motionless as one posing for a sculpture. Benjamin sobbed. “What have they done to her?”
“She’s alive,” Aaron said.
Movement from the tattooed man caught Shadyia’s attention. His hands came down—back!—and she stabbed deep in his shoulder.
He snarled, reeled and fell against the wall, his hand over the wound. “You bitch.” He checked the blood on his fingers.“Next time it will be your eye.”
A bellow of anguish tore Shadyia from the men. Aaron fell off the cart, hit the cobbled stones hard, and rolled on the ground. Benjamin called his name and jumped down as Deresi stood high on her knees, her face pale. Benjamin kneeled and grabbed Aaron by the shoulders. “Mentor, what’s wrong, what’s happened?” Aaron knocked the hands away and rolled on his side, agony twisting his face. He howled and thrashed as if someone had set fire to his clothing. Shadyia glared at the men. Had they done something? No. They stood with gaping mouths and baffled stares.
His hands covering his face, Aaron seemed to bring his torment under control. He sat up and turned eyes of pure rage on Shadyia’s prisoners. “Innocenti. They mutilated her,” he said through seething gasps. “That one and that one. There was a third, but he’s not here. They raped and tortured her for hours.”
He pushed Benjamin back, rolled to his feet, and brought his hands up as if he were lifting the end of a table. The men slammed against the wall and slid up until their feet dangled.
“Vile warlock,” the tattooed one said then spat. “Fate will be your judge.”
Lowering her sword, Shadyia stepped back from Aaron, the wrath on his face choking her breath. Never had she seen him so enraged. A pair of sharp metal rods, twice as long as the men were tall, materialized in the air. With a clang of metal on rock that made her jolt, the spikes plunged into the stone at feet of the men.
They drifted forward and hovered over the sharp ends.
Terror filling his eyes, the tattooed one thrashed against the force that held him. “No, you can’t do that!”
The other pissed himself.
Shadyia reached out her hand. No, Aaron no. Don’t. The men deserved it, but not at the cost of Aaron’s humanity. She touched his shoulder, and a force struck away her hand.
Aaron didn’t even look in her direction. “Her name is Janell. Say it.”
“Janell,” both men said.
“Janell,” they repeated, louder.
Shadyia’s heart hammered as the stance of their feet widened. She couldn’t stop Aaron any more than grasp a boiling cauldron to stay its heat.
“Good,” Aaron said and pushed down his hands. The men dropped.
The spikes pierced their trousers between their legs. The men shrieked louder than Shadyia thought a human throat capable. Blood soaked their leggings as they slowly slid until their boots touched the street. She cringed before the horror. This had to be an illusion. Aaron had said he couldn’t make actual things, not without—
The men shrieked once more as the shirts behind their necks stretched and tore. The spikes reemerged, their tips glistening in blood.
Aaron turned his back on the screaming, flailing men and stepped into the cart. He pulled the cloth over Janell, leaving her face uncovered.
“I don’t know of a physician in Anderholm who could help her. Do you have any at the Silver Rose?”
“Yes, we do,” Shadyia replied, unable to stop her trembling. “And we use jilqu oil.”
He sat in the center of the bench and took the reins of the near panicked horse. Shadyia returned the blacksteel sword to its sheath and leaped in next to a pale-faced Deresi. Benjamin quickly joined her and the cart jerked straight thanks to an unseen force. Aaron tapped the reins.
The cries of the men followed as they rolled along the alley.
Darkness that made Shadyia think of the labyrinth pressed in on all sides as the wagon made its way along the forest road in Kingsleaf. Every bump the wagon’s wheels stuck jarred her like men beating her with their fists. Benjamin lay next to Janell and stroked what remained of her hair. The Innocenti torturers had hacked most of it off, probably with a knife. Tears made lines on his cheeks as he called her name. Janell didn’t respond.
Deresi sat with her back to the corner, hugging her knees. She didn’t speak or look at Janell. She’s as horrified as me, and not just as what had happened to Janell. Shadyia had never seen men impaled. The practice had been outlawed in Anderholm more than a century ago. The stories she heard had always seemed exaggerated. No man could actually survive an injury like that for more than a few seconds. She no longer believed that.
The rising moon gave them enough light to see the road, but just barely. Shadyia sighed. Soon they would arrive at the Silver Rose. Makayla will probably blame me for what happened to Janell. The new madam of the Silver Rose had commanded Shadyia not to leave the palace without her permission, and now she was returning in a wagon with a sister near death, a coin she was supposed to be seducing, his apprentice and Deresi. Fate hates me tonight. Shadyia chastised herself at the thought. If they had been a moment sooner or later, she never would have seen the cart and those vile men would likely now be burying Janell in a shallow grave outside the city. Aaron believed there were no gods, but at times like this, when events were too grave to be mere coincidence, Shadyia found it hard to agree with him.
She reached down and touched Janell’s neck. The pulse was there, but weak. She looked at Aaron, still at the reins. He hadn’t spoken since driving them out of the city and into the forest. Words formed in her mouth, but the will to utter them couldn’t cross her throat. The magic Aaron had used to kill those men wasn’t beautiful and wondrous. It wasn’t butterflies hovering over his hand or a variety of delicious treats to eat and drink. For the first time in her life, she feared a man. They cleared the forest and approached the Dawn Gate. She unbuckled the baldric holding blacksteel sword and hid it as best she could. If anyone searched the cart they’d likely find it. She didn’t care.
Aaron stopped the cart and jumped off. He walked to the back, gathered up Janell and carried her to the gate. Benjamin raced him there and franticly rang the bell. The minutes that followed passed in a blur of activity. Guardian sisters escorted them in, calling for Mrs. Amber, the palace physician. Sisters cried out as they saw Janell. The word spread and soon a crowd of weeping, angry or shocked women gathered round. Sleepy-eyed Mrs. Amber appeared and ordered them back. She asked Aaron to carry Janell to the nearest bed, a pleasure room off the west wing. Allowing only two assistants to follow, she placed guardians outside the door and told everyone else to wait.
The doors to White Hall flew open and Makayla stormed through with Thoria—as always—close on her heels.
“Who brought her?” The madam’s voice silenced the chamber.
Aaron stepped forward. “I did.”
The fury drained from Makayla’s face. “I see.” She smoothed her black dress. “What happened?”
“Innocenti raped and tortured her,” Aaron replied evenly.
Makayla’s long black hair covered half her face as she tilted her head. “Unfortunate.”
Shadyia’s fists tightened at her side. “Unfortunate? That’s all you have to say?”
“No, Sister Shadyia, that’s not all I have to say. We will tend to Sister Janell’s wounds as best we can. In the morning, I will prepare a letter of complaint against the Innocenti and have it delivered to the magistrate. They will see those who committed these acts are brought to justice.” Makayla turned and walked toward the audience, her heels clicking.
Shadyia allowed her a few steps. Not so fast, bitch. “Maybe they’ll start with you.”
Deresi, the sisters, guardians, Benjamin and Aaron stood as statues as Makayla halted. She rounded on Shadyia. “Watch your tongue, Sister, or I will have it removed.”
Shadyia’s rage coiled like a serpent about to strike. If she had kept the blacksteel sword and not hidden it in the wagon, they’d be cleaning Makayla’s blood off the walls and floor for a week. “Give that command and I will kill you and any who try to carry it out.”
Thoria drew her baton and advanced on Shadyia. Aaron rushed forward and intercepted the blond guardian with his body.
“Madam, please call away your guard.”
“Thoria, step back.”
Her scowl locked on Shadyia, Thoria obeyed.
Makayla put her hands on her hips, her long sleeves hanging down. “Speak your mind, Sister. Why do you say such a thing?”
“If you hadn’t sent Janell to the Kaolins, she wouldn’t have sought refuge with the Innocenti.”
“And if she had carried out my command, none of this would have happened. What sort of fool asks the Innocenti for anything?”
“The sort that cannot see them for what they are,” Shadyia replied. “The sort that thinks they are knights from a fairy tale. The sort that talks about joining them—” She leveled her finger. “—as you knew perfectly well!” Makayla huffed. “You dare accuse me of deliberately driving Janell to the Innocenti?”
Benjamin spoke up. “She didn’t go to the Innocenti. She came to me last night.”
Makayla pivoted toward him. “And who are you?”
“I am Aaron’s apprentice, Benjamin.”
Her hazel eyes moved from him to Aaron and back. “So how did she end up with the Innocenti?”
Benjamin looked to Aaron, who shook his head once.
“We got separated in the city this morning.” The young man dropped his gaze.
Makayla faced Shadyia. “And do you also blame me for this, Sister?”
“I do not,” Shadyia replied. Damn the boy and his honesty.
“The hour is late and our nerves are raw,” Aaron said. “Madam, please take the finest care of Janell. I will personally cover any expense.”
“Consider it done.”
“Madam,” Benjamin said, getting her attention, “may I stay with Janell?” Makayla sighed. “That will be up to Mrs. Amber, but we will prepare a room for you in any case.”
“Thank you, Madam.”
Aaron stepped near to Shadyia and lowered his voice. “Why don’t you and Deresi come with me to Featherquill?” The dying rage in Shadyia still seethed, but she looked to Deresi. Did she want to visit Featherquill? Deresi nodded in agreement.
Aaron turned back to Makayla. “Madam, may I have the pleasure of both Sister Shadyia and Sister Deresi this night?” Makayla raised an eyebrow. “You wish them both, sir?”
“I have lots to celebrate.”
“These sisters look disheveled and exhausted, sir. May I ask how they came to be in this state?” Shadyia glanced at Aaron. He mustn’t mention the labyrinth or—
“It’s my fault, Madam,” Aaron said. “We played a game in some ruins beyond the forest. I wanted Sister Shadyia to hide and I would search for her. Sister Deresi was concerned when her friend didn’t return and found us this morning. I invited her to play and…well, things got out of hand. My apologies.”
“None needed, Master Aaron. The coin you’ve offered more than pays for their services. But, do you not wish them bathed, perfumed and properly dressed before they leave with you?” Aaron glanced at Shadyia and Deresi. “To be honest, Madam, I rather like them in this state and I’m not yet finished with them. By your leave, I will take them as they are.”
Makayla arched an eyebrow. “Your vigor will make you a legend, Aaron of Featherquill.” She grinned. “Very well, but have Sister
Deresi return by noon tomorrow.”
“As you wish.”
An arm around both their hips, Aaron led her and Deresi toward the main doors. The sisters dispersed, mumbling quietly among themselves. Makayla’s heels clicked away.
“Wait,” Deresi said as Shadyia put a hand on the outer doors. “I’ll be right back.”
Aaron watched her run off then turned to Shadyia. “You should better watch your words around your madam.”
Fuck her! If not for Benjamin’s blundering innocence and Aaron’s disarming remarks, there would have been a long-overdue fight here. A part of her still wished for that. “You have no idea how much I hate that woman.”
“I have some idea,” he said, his expression serious.
Maybe he does at that. Aaron had said Verthandi had seduced Makayla. “Do you still feel his influence on her?”
Aaron pressed his lips and nodded. “More than ever.”
She seized his arm and hushed her voice. “Then let’s deal with her, here and now. I’ll go with you.”
That infuriating calm crossed his features. “And what of her guards? And the other sisters? Are you prepared to fight them? And even if we could turn them to your side, what happens when the Redcloaks find out? From what you’ve told me, Makayla is the rightful heir to this palace. If we depose her, we would be criminals in the eyes of the law.”
She scowled. Damn his logic! He was worse than Sybaris.
He leaned close. “We will deal with her eventually, after this business with the ruby is completed. If Verthandi is released—” He glanced around at the walls. “—what does any of this matter?”
Shadyia hissed a sigh. “If you say so.” But if she crosses me just one more time…
Deresi returned carrying a familiar flat, wooden box.
“My dress,” Shadyia said.
“I wanted to see it on you.”
Aaron looked at the elegant box. “You have a dress in there?”
Shadyia took the box, glanced around to make sure they weren’t observed, and opened the lid with her thumbs.
Aaron whistled. “That is mag-nificent.”
Shadyia snapped closed the lid and kissed Deresi on the cheek. “Thanks, hon.”
“Where ever did you get that?” Aaron asked. “It must have cost a fortune.”
Deresi offered her an evil grin. “Go on, tell him.”
Shadyia cringed. “You know the seer in the market? The one posing as a tailor?”
Aaron nodded slowly. Just before the three of them had descended into the labyrinth, Aaron had confided that he too had had some dealings with that mysterious seer. She had prophesized that he must find Æthelmaer’s ruby in Mirrikh’s labyrinth or Verthandi would walk the world again.
Shadyia tapped the box. “She made this for me.” The seer had also told Shadyia that Anderholm would burn in a matter of days. More insanity added to an insane situation.
Aaron brushed his fingers over the flat box. “I have a feeling we have not seen the last of her. Let’s go to the stables. Our horses must be kicking the walls down by now.”
Shadyia recovered the blacksteel sword, still in its baldric, from the wagon. Careful to conceal it with her body from anyone who might be watching from the palace, she hid the fine weapon deep in the stables then roused two of the men from their cottage out back. Paying them a silver each, she asked them to bring out the Ramiero chargers, attach them to a carriage and drive Aaron, Deresi and herself to Featherquill. Xavier didn’t appreciate being employed as a carriage horse, but Shadyia rewarded him with a few carrots and words of praise until he grudgingly accepted the harness.
A swaying lantern flung their shadows along the walls as their closed carriage returned through the Kingsleaf. The rhythm of the wheels, and the peace of leaving the palace far behind, pulled Shadyia into blissful rest.
“May I see it?” Deresi asked.
Aaron unfastened the pouch at his side, brought out the ruby, and placed it in Deresi’s cupped hands.
Light from the lantern passed through the ruby and drew red marks on Deresi’s face. She made the kind of sound women usually reserve for holding a kitten. “It’s so beautiful.”
Shadyia forced open her eyes and considered the ruby. On the surface, it looked like the kind of gem an emperor would wear on his crown, but Aaron had said its true value lay within the magic it held. The ruby, he told them, absorbed the knowledge of all the magicians who had ever owned it like a cloth on spilt wine.
Shadyia leaned over and kissed Deresi’s cheek. “I can’t believe you picked Mirrikh’s pocket. You amaze me.” When Mirrikh had seized both her and Aaron in his magic, Deresi had slid to her knees, grabbed his robe, and begged Mirrikh not to harm them. It must have been in that instant that she had dipped her hand into his large pocket and fished out the ruby.
Deresi turned the tear-shaped ruby over and examined its base. The broad end had a shallow, round indention in it. “What is this for?”
“That is where you insert the end of a sagewood staff.”
Shadyia circled her finger inside the indention. Aaron had said if a staff made from sagewood touched the ruby, it would transform into a Valkyrise, an artifact of the magi lords. With this wondrous staff, a magician could triple his power and be immune to all magical attacks. Moreover, if anyone spent enough time with a Valkyrise, they could eventually learn to use magic like a magician. That last bit had particularly caught Deresi’s attention.
“Do you think we could get the sagewood staff from the Asyerian clerics?”
Aaron shook his head. “I seriously doubt it. Sagewood is as rare as any treasure in the world. We could be thrown into the Ahmeinian dungeons just for inquiring about their staff, let alone asking them to let us have it.”
Shadyia thought on that. “What if we were to tell the Asyerians about Verthandi and the Ashkhan escaping?”
The carriage jolted over a bump, making Aaron hop in his seat “That would get us tossed into an asylum instead of the dungeon.” He huffed a laugh and held out his hand in a silent request for the return of the ruby. “No, I will use this to find out how to travel to Celestrial. The archives there should have all known information about the prison of the Ashkhan.”
Deresi, her gaze locked on the gem, nodded. “Yeah, that might work.”
Shadyia nudged Deresi’s side. She had probably not heard anything Aaron had said. Grinning, he gently pried the ruby from Deresi’s fingers. She made a small sound of protest, but dropped her hands to her lap.
“Tell me something, please,” Deresi said as Aaron returned the ruby to his pouch.
“What’s it like to use magic?”
The carriage tilted around a bend as Aaron seemed to consider his answer. “When you first feel the ether, it’s like being parched and drinking from an icy waterfall. It flows over you, refreshes you. You can’t imagine anything being more wonderful. But you can only drink so much and that feeling, believe it or not, passes. You want to learn where the water comes from—and you have this insatiable desire to control the water, make it stop or fall faster. That’s the trap.”
Deresi blinked. “What do you mean?”
“A wise man once said, there is none so improvised as he who wants more than he has. Look at this.” Aaron lifted his left hand, palm up, and passed his right over it. A sphere of blazing flames appeared and hovered just above his cupped fingers. Deresi’s green eyes widened. “Whoa!” Before Shadyia could stop her, she reached for the flame. “Ouch!” She snatched her hand away and put the tips of two fingers in her mouth.
“Are you all right?” Shadyia took Deresi’s hand and inspected it.
Deresi nodded. “It’s fine.”
A wave of heat from the fire above Aaron’s hand brushed Shadyia’s face. Deresi had probably assumed the flames were an illusion. Maybe they were. “A little warning next time, if you please.”
He closed his hand and the flames vanished. “What I just did there was nothing to me. I felt no sense of wonder or accomplishment. If I were a cruel man, I would delight in hurting Deresi, but I’m not, so I can’t even enjoy that.”
Deresi glanced at her fingers. “It felt so real.”
“It wasn’t,” Aaron said, and leaned back on his seat.
He had created something to fool their minds—why? Shadyia cupped her hand over Deresi’s hand. “I still don’t see your point.” “There was a time that when I made something like that, I felt like a god. I had created fire. Do you understand? Fire I knew wasn’t real, but still I would burn my fingers if I touched it. These days, creating an illusion like that is as easy as breathing. Imagine going from feeling like a god, to feeling nothing. Every magician who has ever used magic wants to feel that initial rush again—” Aaron’s hands became fists. “—craves it.”
Shadyia nodded. “Like breathing the smoke from the black ickrus.”
He stabbed a finger at her. “Exactly. Thankfully, I’ve never tried ickrus, but from what people have told me, it’s marvelous. You feel as if you are flying through the clouds. Over time, however, the fumes no longer give the same sensation, but the memory of that experience drives one to take more and more until it consumes your every thought.”
Deresi shook her head. “All right, but that’s illusion. You said there were magicians who could create things for real.”
Aaron rubbed his forehead. “Oh, that’s even worse.”
Deresi yelped in disbelief. “How could it be worse?”
“Imagine if I snapped my fingers and created a necklace of gold and emeralds. A real one.”
She grinned. “I like that thought.”
He lifted his chin. “Why?”
“Emeralds are beautiful, and you can buy things with them. Castles and servants and nice dresses.”
“Could I buy a thousand castles if I made a thousand emerald necklaces?”
The carriage creaked and swayed as Deresi chewed her lower lip in thought. “I guess not. It wouldn’t be worth anything if there were a thousand of them.”
Shadyia drummed her fingers on the leather armrest at her side. Easy for a king with rooms full of treasure to say gold and gems have no meaning, but for the rest of the peasants, wealth was still a splendid thing. “You told me in the castle ruins that no amount of power could thwart fear. Was that true of Mirrikh? Was he afraid?”
Aaron arched an eyebrow. “Do you even need to ask? He had power I could only imagine. He once owned a Valkyrise. When we found him, he wore enchanted artifacts that preserved his life and kept him from all magical harm. Yet…”
Shadyia nodded. “Yet he hid in a labyrinth for centuries.”
“Precisely. I am certain, despite all that he was and all that he owned, Mirrikh felt inadequate, paranoid and—yes—afraid.” Shadyia shook her head against the thought. Would she be the same? If she had the power Mirrikh possessed, would she only crave more? It was difficult to believe there would come a time when working magic became as dull as doing the washing. Magic opened new worlds, new experiences. To grasp the unknown, to entertain the masses, to conquer the lands of your enemy…
To kill men who delighted in torture.
Shadyia stared at Aaron. Soon they would arrive in Anderholm and his manor in the Artisan Quarter. If she were to ever understand what had happened in the alley, now would be the time. “May I ask you about something difficult?” Aaron turned grim as if he had expected her to breach this matter. “Go ahead.”
“What happened to you in the alley?” Shadyia asked.
He briefly closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and released it. “I touched Janell’s mind to learn who was responsible for her injuries.”
“You can do that too?” Deresi asked. “Remarkable.”
“No,” Aaron replied curtly. “Foolish. I acted in haste and didn’t put up the proper defenses. I felt a portion of what they did to Janell as if it were done to me. It nearly drove me insane.”
Deresi crossed her fingers over her lips. “You felt what she did?”
He nodded. “Some of it.”
A chill brushed Shadyia’s nape. Some of it. Aaron had writhed on the ground and screamed in agony. As he had recovered, he had said three Innocenti had taken turns on Janell. One of those three men was still out there, but two of them had paid for their acts with pain and humiliation equal, Shadyia hoped, to what they had done to Janell. Or had they? “Those men in the wagon, what you did to them, was that real?”
“It was real to them.”
Deresi visibly shuddered. “I wish I hadn’t seen that. I mean, I know they deserved it, but I can’t get it out of my mind.” Aaron rubbed his forehead. “For that, I deeply apologize. I acted out of rage with no regard for you or Shadyia. I should have told you to look away.”
“I wouldn’t have, even if you’d asked.” Shadyia had wanted to see those vile men die.
The haunted look in Deresi’s eyes told she did not feel the same. “Will Janell recover?”
Aaron responded with a slight shrug. “I think she’ll survive, but she won’t be Janell any longer. At least, I don’t think so. She may prove us wrong.”
When Aaron opened the cloth covering Janell, her chin and neck had been covered in dry blood, probably form having her tongue cut out. They had pressed branding irons against her breasts until—Fuck! Shadyia quivered. Stop thinking about it! “So those men are still alive?” she asked, her tone hot with anger.
“Oh no.” Aaron shook his head. “In the morning, the city guard will find two dead men in that alley. There will be no evidence of what killed them, but to those Innocenti, they were impaled.”
Shadyia clenched the fingers on her thigh into a fist. “Good.”
Deresi soft hand cupped over Shadyia’s fist. She reached across the cabin and offered her other hand to Aaron. “I know you don’t believe in the gods, but can we pray for Janell?”
He took her hand. “Certainly.”
Deresi closed her eyes. “Hallowed Luun, goddess of strength, guide our fallen sister, Janell, back into the light. Let her know she is loved and we miss her and need her in our lives.”
“May it be so,” Shadyia said, her anger vanishing.
“May it be so,” Aaron repeated.
Shadyia lifted Deresi’s hand and kissed her knuckles. “I’ve never heard you pray before.”
She shrugged. “Can’t hurt.”
Aaron let go of Deresi’s hand. “We should arrive at my home soon. So, tell me ladies, how may I reward you for your magnificent service?”
Shadyia yawned. Enough of rewards and magic. “As I said outside the tower, a bath, a hot meal, and some rest are all I need.”
“There must be more.”
She leaned her head on Deresi’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “At the moment, I cannot see past that.”
“I know what she wants,” Deresi said.
“Tell me,” Aaron asked.
“She wants to dance at the Crystal Ballroom.”
That snapped Shadyia awake. “I do, eh?”
“Yes, and don’t even deny it.” Deresi bopped the end of Shadyia’s nose. “I saw how your eyes lit up when I told you how I snuck in there.”
Aaron arched his eyebrows as if impressed. “You did?”
Deresi bobbed her head. “About five years ago.” She pushed a lock of red hair behind one ear. “I broke in one night with some friends. Just make sure when you take her, there’s plenty of music. She has no imagination.”
Aaron pursed his lips and nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. And what about you, Dee? What would you like, besides a servant to polish your toes?”
Shadyia grinned. To lighten the tension in the labyrinth, Deresi had joked—had it been a joke?—that she had always wanted to be wealthy enough to employ someone to polish her toes. Just that and nothing else. Polish her toes.
“Oh the usual,” Deresi said with a flip of her wrist. “A castle in the clouds, a dozen flying horses and my own queendom.”
Aaron stared at her a moment then blinked. “That may take a bit longer, but I’ll get to work on it.”
Deresi exchanged her smirk for a serious look. “You know what I’d really like?”
“Tell me, please.”
“I’d like to be a magician. I want to do the things you do.” She wiggled her fingers.
Shadyia rolled her eyes. Oh, just great. Aaron would remind her that women were never trained as magicians and such power came with a price few were willing to pay. Deresi would argue and Shadyia would have to mediate. She’d get no rest on the way to Featherquill.
“I can help you there,” Aaron said with sincerity. “It will take some time and lots of hard work, but if you’re willing, so am I.” Deresi lifted her chin. “I am.”
Shadyia silently admonished herself. Aaron wasn’t the type to have his hands tied by tradition, nor was he a stuffy lord of Anderholm who needed to dominate the women in his life. But Deresi as a magician? For some reason, Shadyia pictured a cat with wings. I only hope she doesn’t fly too close to the sun.
“All right then, but tell me something, both of you. Do you wish to leave the Silver Rose?”
Shadyia was aware that Deresi was looking at her even before she turned her head so she could meet her curious green eyes. Leave the Silver Rose? It had been more than her home for six years; it was her identity. The money was easy and she loved the work, the games of seduction. She was the finest of the sisters, a gold belt, envied and respected. Why should I leave?
Even as that question coursed through her mind, she knew the answer. She had dared to enter a labyrinth of death, fought deadly shadows and had even driven her sword through Mirrikh’s ghostly face so that her companions could escape. But it wasn’t just the adventures and terrors under the Black Tower. Aaron had told her of ancient civilizations and faraway lands.
There was so much to the world she had yet to see, so much she had yet to experience. Janell needed to be avenged, Makayla needed to be dealt with—probably with the help of Sybaris—and the sisters needed to be protected from the Innocenti, but when that was done, the time had come to seek new horizons and new challenges.
“Yes,” she said.
Deresi touched her knee. “Are you sure, hon?”
Shadyia nodded. “I can’t go back to whoring, not anymore. I think, maybe, finding Janell closed that door forever. I want to make a difference in this world. It’s what my foster father would have desired for me.” Somewhere, beyond the veil where the spirits traveled, she imagined her foster father smiling. Maybe he didn’t ride celestial horses across the eternal plains of Eriensym, but Aaron said the spirits of good men continued on past a mortal death. She hoped so.
“What about the sisterhood?” Deresi asked.
“I’ll find a way to keep them safe from the Innocenti. I don’t know how just yet, but when that’s done, so am I.”
Deresi discreetly squeezed Shadyia’s thigh. “I’ll follow you anywhere.”
Shadyia kissed Deresi’s neck, just below the ear. If Aaron hadn’t been sitting there, it would have been her lips that got kissed, and more.
“You’re both welcome to stay at Featherquill as long as you wish,” Aaron said. “My home is your home.”
“Thank you, Aaron,” Shadyia said.
Deresi added her gratitude with a sweet smile.
“Listen, when we get there, you won’t see much of me until tomorrow. I’m going to be in a special room I’ve constructed under the house.” He patted the bulge in his pouch. “I want to study this as much as I can. I’ll show you how to contact me if you need to, it’s easy. Just a bell you need to ring. But please, make sure it’s important before you do.”
“I understand,” Shadyia said. “You need to save the world.”
“And you need to save your sisterhood.”
“And then we will take a long, lovely holiday,” Deresi added.
A long holiday. Shadyia hummed at the thought. That we will do.