The prison bore a sharp resemblance to the dungeons of Anastacya’s childhood: dark, wet, and made of unyielding stone that leaked grime and misery. There was blood here, too; she could sense it all, tugging at her from the jagged stone steps to the torch-blackened walls, lingering at the edges of her consciousness like an ever-present shadow.
It would take so very little—a flick of her will—for her to control it all.
At the thought, Ana twined her gloved fingers tighter around the worn furs of her hood and turned her attention back to the oblivious guard several paces ahead. His varyshki bull-leather boots clacked in smooth, sharp steps, and if she listened closely enough, she could hear the faint jingle of the goldleaves she’d used to bribe him in his pockets.
She was not a prisoner this time; she was his customer, and that sweet rattle of coins was a constant reminder that he was— for now—on her side.
Still, the torchlight cast his flickering shadow on the walls around them; it was impossible not to see this place as the fabric of her nightmares and hear the whispers that came with.
Papa would have told her that this was a place filled with demons, where the evilest men were held. Even now, almost a year after his death, Ana found her mouth running dry as she imagined what he would say if he saw her here.
Ana shoved those thoughts away and kept her gaze straight ahead. Monster and murderer she might be, but that had nothing to do with her task at hand.
She was here to clear her name of treason. And it all depended on finding one prisoner.
“I’m telling you, he won’t give you nothing.” The guard’s coarse voice pulled her from the whispers. “Heard he was on a mission to murder someone high-profile when he was caught.”
He was talking about the prisoner. Her
prisoner. Ana straightened, grasping for the lie she had rehearsed over and over again. “He’ll tell me where he hid my money.”
The guard threw her a sympathetic glance over his shoulder. “You’d best be spending your time somewhere nicer and sunnier, meya dama. More’n a dozen nobles have bribed their way into Ghost Falls to see him, and he’s given ’em nothing yet. He’s made some powerful enemies, this Quicktongue.”
A long, drawn-out wail pierced the end of his sentence, a scream so tortured that the hairs on Ana’s neck rose. The guard’s hand flitted to the hilt of his sword. The torchlight cut his face, half in flickering orange, half in shadow. “Cells are gettin’ full of ’em Affinites.”
Ana’s steps almost faltered; her breath caught sharply, and she let it out again, slowly, forcing herself to keep pace.
Her disquiet must have shown on her face, for the guard said quickly, “Not to worry, meya dama. We’re armed to the teeth with Deys’voshk, and the Affinites’re kept locked in special blackstone cells. We won’t go near ’em. Those deimhovs are locked in safe.”
A sickly feeling stirred in the pit of her stomach, and she dug her gloved fingers into her palm as she cinched her hood tighter over her head. Affinites were usually spoken of in hushed whispers and fearful glances, accompanied by tales of the handful of humans who had Affinities to certain elements. Monsters—who could do great things with their powers. Wield fire. Hurl lightning. Ride wind. Shape flesh. And then there were some, it was rumored, whose powers extended beyond the physical.
Powers that no mortal being should have. Powers that belonged either to the Deities or to the demons.
The guard was smiling at her, perhaps to be friendly, perhaps wondering what a girl like her, clad in furs and velvet gloves— worn, though clearly once luxurious—was doing in this prison.
He would not be smiling at her if he knew what she was. Who
Her world sharpened into harsh focus around her, and for the first time since she’d stepped into the prison, she studied the guard. Cyrilian Imperial insignia—the face of a roaring white tiger—carved proudly upon his blackstone-enforced breastplate. Sword at his hip, sharpened so that the edges sliced into thin air, made of the same material as his armor—a half- metallic, half-blackstone alloy impervious to Affinite manipulation.
And, finally, her gaze settled on the vial of green-tinged liquid that dangled from his belt buckle, its tip curved like the fang of a snake.
Deys’voshk, or Deities’ Water, the only poison known to subdue an Affinity.
She had stepped, once again, into the fabric of her nightmares. Dungeons carved of cold, darker-than-night blackstone, and the bone-white smile of her caretaker as he forced spice-tinged Deys’voshk down her throat to purge the monstrosity she’d been born with—a monstrosity, even in Affinites’ terms. Monster.
Beneath her gloves, her palms were slick with sweat.
“We have a good selection of employment contracts up for sale, meya dama.” The guard’s voice seemed very far away. “With the amount of money you’ve offered to see Quicktongue, you’d be better off signing one or two Affinites. They’re not here for any serious crimes, if that’s your concern. Just foreigners without documents. They make for cheap labor.”
Her heart stammered. She’d heard of this corruption. Foreign Affinities lured to Cyrilia with promises of work, only to find themselves at the traffickers’ mercy when they arrived. She’d even heard whispers of guards and soldiers across the Empire falling into the pockets of the Affinite brokers, goldleaves flowing into their pockets like water.
Ana had just never expected to meet one.
She tried to keep her voice steady as she replied, “No, thank you.”
She had to get out of this prison as fast as possible.
It was all that she could do to keep planting one foot ahead of the other, to keep her back straight and chin high as she had been taught. As always, in the blind mist of her fear, she turned her thoughts to her brother—Luka would be brave; he would do this for her.
And she had to do this for him. The dungeons, the guard, the whispers, and the memories they brought back—she’d endure it all, and endure it a hundred times over, if it meant she could see Luka again.
Her heart ached as she thought of him, but her grief was an endless black hole; it wouldn’t do to sink into it now. Not when she was so close to finding the one man who could help her clear her name.
“Ramson Quicktongue,” barked the guard, drawing to a stop outside a cell. “Someone here to collect.” A jangle of keys; the cell door swung open with a reluctant screech. The guard turned to her, raising his torch, and she saw his eyes pass over her hood again. “He’s inside. I’ll be here—give me a shout once you’re ready to be let back out.”
Drawing a sharp breath to summon her courage, Ana threw back her shoulders and stepped into the cell.
The rancid smell of vomit hit her, along with the stench of human excrement and sweat. In the farthest corner of the cell, a figure slumped against the grime-covered wall. His shirt and breeches were torn and bloody, his wrists chafed from the manacles that locked him to the wall. All she could see was matted brown hair until he raised his head, revealing a beard covering half of his face, filthy with bits of food and grime.
was the criminal mastermind whose name she’d forced from the lips of almost a dozen convicts and crooks? The man on whom she had pinned all her hopes for the past eleven moons?
She froze, however, as his eyes focused on her with sharp intent. He was young—much younger than she’d expected for a renowned crime lord of the Empire. Surprise twanged in her stomach.
“Quicktongue,” she said, testing her voice, and then louder— “Ramson Quicktongue. Is that your real name?”
A corner of the prisoner’s mouth curled in a grin. “Depends on how you define ‘real.’ What’s real and what’s not tends to get twisted in places like these.”
Copyright © 2019 by Amelie Wen Zhao. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.