won’t attack!” Jabir shouts from outside. “There’s no need for anyone to get hurt.”
He’s here. He has come for me. He will take me back.
But Jabir isn’t more powerful than the Neverseen King. How could he threaten his sovereign? I want to dismiss this as stupidity, but every time I underestimated Jabir, I paid for it dearly. My slaver is many things, but stupid, he is not.
Several horrible realizations hit me, one after the other.
The artifact. Kolb said it broke down djinn magic. Could it cripple the Neverseen King’s power?
The floor plans. Jabir wanted me to plan a break-in for the palace. Something he didn’t want me knowing.
The vision of him in the icy wasteland of my magic. The way he always knew where I was, always found me when I ran. The way his voice has haunted me.
Jabir is trying to overthrow the Neverseen King—and has been working toward this for possibly years. And he’s not just some peasant who has cobbled together more peasants for a rebellion.
The Neverseen King’s gaze shoots to me. When he speaks, his voice is measured and calm, but so dark. “How did they know the palace wards were down, Nadira?”
Suddenly his closeness doesn’t feel safe and intimate. He is a cage around me, pinning me to the wall, cutting off my escape.
The implied accusation catches me so off-guard, my body goes rigid and my tongue can’t form words. I stand there, fully aware of his charge, of his sudden desperation that I assuage his fears, but I can’t think.
He’s going to kill me.
He said he would. This is his hesitation. I don’t know how long it will last, only that it will eventually end, and there will be nothing I can do to keep him from killing me. I always knew, from the moment he showed up in my room, that he would kill me. It was only a matter of time, and now—
Stop it, Nadira.
I close my eyes, grit my teeth, and reach down into that well of power sitting in my gut. I’m not helpless. Even against the Neverseen King.
“No,” I growl. “I didn’t betray you.”
“Then how did they know?” he growls back, leaning closer to me. So close, that I’m almost swallowed up in his shadow, dwarfed by his sheer size. “The wards haven’t been down a full hour—and there’s an army outside of my House? It’s almost as if they were prepared.”
“I didn’t do it.”
“How long have you known about your magic?”
“I didn’t know before today!”
Suddenly, he flicks his wrist, and then it’s one of my own knives that he brings to my throat, pinning me to the wall with his forearm against my shoulders and chest. I suck in a fast breath, my awareness focusing on the tip of my blade grazing over my pulse.
His voice drops so low it’s a rumble. “Are you lying to me?”
He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me. He’s—
“Don’t take another step, Eshe,” the Neverseen King growls before I can answer. His gaze hasn’t left mine. “Put away your knife, and stay back. Don’t make me kill your friend.”
“She’s not lying, you brute,” Eshe snaps. “Put away your knife and step back. I don’t want to have to kill you.”
“I am waiting for her to answer me.” The Neverseen King brings his mouth toward my ear and the skin of my neck pebbles from his warm breath. He whispers softly, so only I can hear. “You know what I’ve sacrificed for this Bridge. You know what I’ve already given up, and if you think I’m not willing to give you up too, then you’re mistaken. So answer me, Mourner. Tell me why I shouldn’t separate your pretty head from your pretty shoulders. Convince me.” With those words, he twists his head just slightly, and I can almost feel his dark grin spreading across his face. The grin he wore in that dream I had of him, of him in his throne room.
I clench my fists. “I’m not lying. I don’t know how Jabir knows, or what his plans are, but I didn’t betray you.”
“And you expect me to believe you?”
“I told you the truth.”
“What is the truth, Nadira? You tricked me into that kiss. You manipulated me. What proof can you give me that you haven’t been manipulating me this entire time?” His grin is gone, utterly gone, replaced by a calm, but deadly rage. “Has everything been a lie?”
His mention of our kiss almost makes me go dizzy. I can hardly think with that knife at my throat. Am I even breathing? I shut my eyes, barely restraining a whimper behind my teeth. What can I do? What can I say to prove myself?
Somehow, I grit out a vicious, “Don’t be a fool.”
“Oh, I’ve been a fool alright,” he snarls. Then, louder, “Eshe, I don’t want to hurt you. Stay. Back.”
“Get out of here, Eshe,” I rasp.
“I’m not leaving you,” she shoots back.
A boom from outside: “This is your last chance, Neverseen King! We have you surrounded!”
The Neverseen King growls wordlessly, but he doesn’t move. He keeps me pinned to the wall, his eyes never leaving mine. The knife still rests against my throat. It bobs when I swallow.
“If I wanted to betray you, I could have done it ages ago,” I grit out, my voice low and calmer than I feel. “Don’t insult me with your flimsy accusations. We both know this hasn’t been a lie. You are just angry that you came to care for me after swearing never to care again after your wife died. It would be easier for you if all of this had been a lie, wouldn’t it?”
Then, despite my trembling hands, I reach up, wrap my hand around his wrist, and push the knife away from my throat. He lets me do it, even though his eyes burn with an inner war.
“Nadira?” a new voice calls from the floor below. A young man’s voice.
My blood runs cold. What in the Great Desert is Kolb doing here?
But I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s my own fault he’s here. He still believes Jabir is saving his little sister.
Footsteps pound up the stairs. “Nadira? Where are you?”
Like the wind, the Neverseen King pulls back from me, and cool air washes over my body. He vanishes into the shadows—invisible, but oh so present—as Kolb reaches the top of the stairs. His curly hair is a mop of chaos, and his lip is split, his clothes covered in dirt. “There you are!” he cries. “We’ve got to get out of here. Jabir sent me to find you. Come on!”
“What is going on?” Eshe demands, storming toward him.
He whirls, throwing up his hands and eyebrows raising in surprise. “Eshe! You’re here too? Come on, we’ve got to hurry! Jabir’s about to attack this place!” His gaze darts to where I stand against the wall, my chest heaving and my hands shaking. In a few steps, he crosses the distance between us, reaching toward me. He catches the back of my head. I’m so dazed, so frozen, that I barely process his intention to kiss me as his words rattle around my head.
“I’m so glad you’re alright,” he says gently. And lowers his mouth to mine.
Suddenly, he’s ripped away from me. He hits the far wall by the staircase, grunting on impact. Black cloak swirls in the rush of air between us as the Neverseen King snarls.
“Don’t you dare touch her. She’s mine.”
“Neverseen King!” Kolb whimpers, falling to his knees and bowing his head.
The Neverseen King stands over him, the powerful outline of his tall form a shocking contrast to the lanky boy at his feet. My senses return to me with a flash of panic.
“Don’t kill him!” I burst, rushing forward and grabbing the sultan’s arm. He flinches at my touch, his head whipping toward me. “Please.”
He yanks away from me with a sweep of his cloak and storms down the stairs. “Come with me, Mourner. Go hide in your room, thief, if you don’t want my House to eat you alive in a few minutes.”
He didn’t kill Kolb. Relief floods me, and I barely have time to consider before my feet are in motion, following the Neverseen King by instinct.
But then I stop. Turn around. Kolb is slowly pulling his bracing hands away from his face. His large eyes meet mine in worry, fear. Emotion thickens my throat.
“Your sister is dead,” I choke. “Jabir lied to you. Get out of here before you’re dead too.”
His face pales. Then it twists into an ugly snarl—an expression I’ve never seen on his sweet face. “No, she is not. Do not lie to me! Jabir is getting her medicine. She will be fine!”
“She’s been dead for days! You need to get out of here!”
“You’re a liar! A filthy liar!”
I swallow bile and flee. I lay my hand on the banister, which took some serious damage from the dragon. Nevertheless, there’s a faint warmth, a subtle hum in the splintered wood that slips past my skin into my awareness. Stay safe, I tell it in my mind.
Stay safe, it replies.
The outline of the Neverseen King grows harder to distinguish from the darkness of the palace. It’s almost night. Only the faintest glow of sunlight is visible when we reach the bottom of the staircase and face the open doors into the courtyard.
The courtyard that is now gray and lifeless, the stone fountain cracked and silent.
Does he believe me? Does he believe I didn’t betray him? Or is he about to test me further—or return me to Jabir as punishment?
I draw a knife in each hand as we step into the empty courtyard. My senses go on high alert, my eyes straining for anything out of the ordinary. Any sign of movement.
The first movement is that of a slight form slipping to the Neverseen King’s side.
“Go hide,” the sultan growls at Safya. “The House is about to turn. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“I will stay by your side,” she replies, her voice threaded with iron.
“Those at my side have a death wish.”
I steal a sidelong glance at him. He moves swiftly, with determination, but there is something ice-cold about the way his rage burns. Wounds as deep as his cannot heal, can they?
The three of us move swiftly toward the gate, and I become aware of two sets of footsteps following us at a distance. Eshe and Kolb. Why can’t Eshe do what she’s told for once and stay out of danger?
And why won’t Kolb leave? He has no ties to Jabir now.
Finally, we reach the arches leading into the courtyard before the gate to the palace. Me, at the Neverseen King’s right, Safya at his left. Before us, barely visible in the light of the dying sun, is a mass of dark silhouettes beyond the gate. And one painfully familiar silhouette standing just inside the gate.
The Neverseen King stops.
A glint of teeth catches the rays of the rising moon as Jabir smiles. “There you are. Out from hiding, at last.”
I tighten my grip on my knives, my heart nearly pounding out of my chest. The scars on my jaw and back throb in agonized memory.
The Neverseen King’s voice is cold and controlled. “Go home.”
“We are calling for your abdication, Neverseen King,” Jabir calls. A cheer goes up in the men behind him, and he smiles. “We’ve suffered under your negligent hand for too long. We want our throne back. Step down peacefully and no one will be hurt.”
The Neverseen King is quiet for so long that I steal a sideways glance at him. An army stands before him, and yet he doesn’t flinch. He does not retreat one step. And if I wasn’t so terrified of why he intended for me to come with him, I’d be honored to stand at his side.
As though sensing my gaze, he turns slightly, the flash of his bright eyes burning into me.
Then he faces Jabir once more. “Are you Jabir?”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Neverseen King.”
“Then tell me”—his rumbling tone turns into a snarl—“why did you enslave Nadira?”
A gasp lodges in my throat. My attention whips to him, to the furious set of his shoulders. What? Why in the Great Desert would he be—
“I can smell your fae blood,” continues the Neverseen King. “Did you sense her magic?”
“What?” I blurt, unable to swallow back the word.
“Did you enslave her for her magic?” he demands, ignoring me. “You did, didn’t you?”
Even from across the courtyard, the clenching of Jabir’s jaw is still visible. I know that look. That look always meant I was about to be punished. My feet root to the spot, black spots dancing across my sight.
The Neverseen King believes me. He believes I didn’t betray him.
“The girl has nothing to do with—” Jabir starts.
“This has everything to do with her,” snaps the Neverseen King, drawing himself up taller. “Now answer me like a man, or retreat like a dog with your tail between your legs.”
It happens too fast.
There are arrows.
There is blood.
I can’t think.
Not as the Neverseen King falls to his knees, a gasp wringing from him. Not as three arrow shafts protrude from his chest. Blackness overcomes my vision as Safya falls. Silent as a dead bird.
Only I remain on my feet. Unharmed. Untouched. Immobile.
He’s not dead. He presses a hand to his chest, but I recognize the agony of his quiet, shuddering breaths.
He could have dodged those with his unnatural speed. Could have vanished. Could have—
But he couldn’t. Because Jabir has that artifact. And when I keep expecting the Neverseen King to do something, to rise up and show the tremendous power I know he has, he doesn’t.
His shadowy head whips toward me, and his invisible gaze sears me from the inside out.
And then there’s Jabir, walking toward me. His hand out. A falsely sympathetic look on his features. “Come home, my girl. I’ve missed you.”
It’s not just Jabir walking toward me. His army filters through the gates, running to surround the three of us. The gasping Neverseen King, the dead Safya. And me. The Mourner.
There’s a growing puddle of blood.
“You’ve done your job well,” continues Jabir. “I commend you. Now come. If you—”
Blood reaches my boots.
Jabir keeps talking. I don’t hear him.
But I come.
One step after the other, leaving bloody footprints in my wake. Echoes of the Neverseen King’s earlier words wash over me as ice grips my heart in its tight fist.
For the first time, I have hope. Hope for a new beginning.
My knife hits true. The soldier next to Jabir crumples to the ground. My first nameless kill. Jabir’s eyes go wide, and he shouts something. The soldiers surrounding us respond at once.
But I’m moving in another dimension. One made of silence and measured exhales.
One, two, three, four, five.
Soldiers run toward me. Weapons drawn.
I will never let go again, Nadira.
Six, seven, eight.
I dodge a falling scimitar. Shove a knife up into the soldier’s ribs. Blood drenches my hand. Hot, sticky, thick. I wrench the knife free, fling my arm in an arc and release the knife so it hits another soldier about to attack the sultan.
Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.
Dawn will come again.
My eyes lock on Jabir’s. Even as he retreats, slipping into the mass of his soldiers for protection, I don’t lose sight of him.
He shot the Neverseen King. My Neverseen King.
Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two.
My body moves in the dance I’ve practiced since childhood. I steal another scimitar until I’m cutting through soldiers left and right, so fast I cannot keep count. The hairs on the back of my neck alert me to dodge, to duck, to sidestep.
Nadira, don’t give in to the despair.
At some point while I fight, pushing forward through Jabir’s army, stepping over dead bodies, a distant realization finds me.
There are too many.
Forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven.
By the time I get to Jabir and force him to call his men back, the Neverseen King could have been killed. Could have died. And Eshe—she could die too, if she hasn’t hidden herself.
There’s also my own strength to consider. I cannot fight forever. I cannot take down an entire army by myself.
At least, not with a blade . . .
With or without you, dawn will come again.
The moon rises overhead.
Fifty-eight. Fifty-nine. Sixty.
I stop. Throw my scimitars into the chests of oncoming soldiers.
Dawn isn’t coming back. It’s swallowed up by night.
I close my eyes. Reach deep, deep down inside myself where the cold burns in my gut. “You wanted a monster, Jabir?” I whisper, the pounding of approaching feet vibrating beneath my boots. “Fine. I’ll be your monster.”
Something inside me shivers.
A scream bursts from my throat. Ice surges through me, blasting from my hands like a tidal wave. It takes all my strength, all my fury, and swallows it whole. I fall to one knee, my hands outstretched, my lungs heaving as I gasp for air.
I lift my head.
Dead bodies surround me in almost every direction. Impaled by great spikes of ice. Only a few soldiers remain—the soldiers who’d been sheltered from the blast by their fellows.
So . . . many.
My shoulders sag, my jaw dropping.
What—what have I done?
I look down at my shaking hands. They’re smeared with blood.
I just . . . I just . . .
Motion catches the tail of my eye. I whip around in time to see Jabir turn on his heel and run. Straight for the gate. His remaining men rush to follow as I wipe blood from my mouth and get to my feet.
I’m not about to let him get away.
I spin, almost stumbling on my wobbly legs.
There is the Neverseen King, dragging himself to his feet, despite the arrows still protruding from his chest. Eshe is at his side, and he shoves away her reaching hands.
“I’m fine,” he growls. “I just need . . . a minute.” Then he looks up, and our gazes meet. He says nothing, surrounded by all those dead bodies and ice. Despite his obvious lie—he is not fine, nowhere near fine—a broken part of me knits back together.
Then I’m sprinting. I don’t care that the ice blast zapped my strength. The night wind blows my wild hair behind me as I leap, catch the iron spikes at the top of the gate, and vault straight over to the other side. I land lightly, rolling up to my feet and ripping out my knives.
Of the fleeing men, there’s only one I care about.
I latch onto that familiar tall form, the one I always ran from. The one I never would have chased.
I chase him now.
He sprints across the sandy, paved street leading into Risya and dodges into a dirty alleyway. I follow, skidding on stone and leaping over fallen crates, dodging small lumps of sleeping orphans. Ahead, Jabir leaps, grabs hold of a low roof edge, and swings himself up. His turban comes loose and comes flying back toward me. I dodge it as I swing onto the roof behind him.
I’ve never seen him move so fast.
But I’m fast too.
Starlight bathes the rooftops of Risya, catches Jabir’s free-flying hair and illuminates unusual streaks of blue as he leaps from one rooftop to the next. The jump is too far for me, but there is a fat clothesline stretched between the windows below us. If I wasn’t so set on my quarry, I would have been afraid of falling. Now, I run across it as if I’ve been an acrobat my entire life.
Because I’m not letting Jabir get away.
I pump my legs harder, my focus never wavering. The further I chase him, the more certain I am about where he’s going. I alter my course slightly, angling my pursuit to keep him in my line of vision while cornering him to the right.
He drops back into the streets. I jump toward an overhang, grab the wood, and swing myself to the ground after him. He goes straight, but I duck into an alleyway to the left, scattering feral cats as I go.
For once, I feel as though I could chase Jabir for days and never slow down.
He is not getting away.
Not this time.
It is time for him to pay.
When I race down a familiar narrow street, a single rickety lantern glows at the dead end like always. And there is Jabir, his shoulders heaving as he fumbles with a key to unlock the door.
I raise my knife, breathe an apology to it, and throw it.
It hits exactly where I wanted it to: through Jabir’s sleeve and into the door, pinning him to the frame.
He stops. Turns.
I throw my second-to-last knife. He lets out a cry as it pierces straight through his hand, pinning it to the door so he can’t rip the first knife out of the wood. Blood wells around the wound and drips down his wrist, falling to the dusty ground.
His key clatters to the ground.
“Your magic won’t work here.” Jabir’s grating, pain-filled voice rises above the huffing of our combined pants for air. “I have the artifact. It nullifies magic.”
His beady eyes study me. We face each other as we never have before, lantern light washing us in a dance of flame and shadow.
Now he is the one who is trapped.
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
Slowly, I approach him. His eyes travel up and down me, as though seeing me for the first time. Seeing me as the monster he created me to be, not the little girl who was always so terrified of him.
“Those assassinations weren’t for clients, were they?” I say. “They weren’t other people’s enemies. They were your enemies. They were people who supported the Neverseen King. You had to get them out of the way so they didn’t try to stop you when you led a rebellion. I had to kill Lord Kishon so he wouldn’t set the city guard on you. Were those mostly city guards in your army tonight? Did you buy them out with the money from Eshe’s thievery? Don’t even bother denying it.”
He only gives me a little, crooked-mouthed smile.
“My entire life,” I spit, “was spent killing people for you.”
“Well, not all of them,” Jabir corrects with a shrug. It’s an awkward shrug, given that his hands are pinned. “There were some clients. You created quite a reputation for yourself with those quiet, untraceable assassinations and those apology notes.”
“You created that reputation for me.”
“Did I?” he challenges.
I don’t respond for a minute, hating that his implication is more right than I want to admit. He is only responsible for my being an assassin. I did the rest.
“Why do you hate the Neverseen King so much?” I demand, stalking another step closer.
Cold steel enters his gaze, and the temper I’ve dreaded for so many years flares to life as he spits a volley of words. “My grandmother was a courtier in the High King’s palace. She was wealthy, respected, and had everything she ever could have wanted. But she was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the High King got angry, so he banished her to the human world. And the Neverseen King placed her here in Arbasa, where he could keep an eye on her. What he really meant was so he could humiliate her, strip her of every dignity. Fae can live for millennia, but not here. She died. My mother died—as a beggar. And when I tried to plead with the Neverseen King to let me take my mother back to Faerieland so she could recover, he refused to let me into his gate. My mother wasn’t the one who was banished. And yet because he controls the Bridge, none of us can return home.”
He flexes his fingers and winces, even as he glares at me with barely contained rage. Blood slides down the door in a steady stream. But I’m not done with him yet.
My voice carries on the night wind. “Why did you kill my parents?”
“Because I wanted you,” he snarls.
He inclines his head toward the palace, grimaces at the pain the movement causes. “It was as he said. I could smell your magic. I saw you in the bazaar and suddenly, I had a chance. I knew Lulythinar was swiftly approaching, and that the Neverseen King hadn’t gotten a new human bride and would soon be desperate for one. With your magic, I knew you’d be a good candidate. So I waited until your family went back home and then . . . I took you.”
I took you.
Three benign words to describe the worst moment of my entire life.
“I taught you the skills he would find valuable. I made you as attractive of an option as I could.”
His voice rings in my ears. I can hardly believe it. My being kidnapped by the Neverseen King had been the plan. Had been the sole reason for my capture in the first place.
“And I thought that if he didn’t take you for his bride, when your magic manifested you could still break into the palace. Perhaps even assassinate the Neverseen King himself. His overthrow has been long overdue.” He chuckles, his incisors glinting. “So I bought a tracking spell from a spellcaster and put it on you—and another on your magic.”
My glare darkens. “That’s how you knew I was there in the first place. And that’s how you knew the palace wards were down.”
“If you know so much about magic—if you have this fae blood—then why did you try to take down the Neverseen King? If you knew anything about this palace, you’d know that this throne is bondage.”
“Not if there was someone else who wanted the Neverseen King’s position.”
I blink slowly, turning this over in my mind. “You . . . made a deal. With a fae. This fae couldn’t send you back to Faerieland, but he could give you Arbasa. And this fae would have the Bridge. You were the one Dabria left the palace to meet.”
His smile widens, despite the drip, drip, drip of his blood. That smile grates down my spine like the edge of a dull blade.
“Why are you answering my questions?”
“Because I know you’re going to kill me.”
“Then why aren’t you fighting?”
His smile almost . . . softens. “You’re so different from the child you were that first day.”
The child that screamed for her mama and baba. “Are you proud of your work?” I spit.
“Very much so. Now come. If you’re going to kill me, girl, then kill me. It’s not as if I relish the idea of ripping my hand through this knife to get away. Will you make it quick and painless, like all your other assassinations? Or will you prolong it, to make me pay for what I’ve done to you? Will you torture me, I wonder?”
There’s a trick.
I tighten my grip on my knives and take one step closer.
His fingers flinch so subtly I almost miss it.
He’s afraid of me.
The realization almost makes me sick. At the same time, a cold assurance fills my core. It’s not a trick—it’s bluff.
The red silk turban he’s worn for years is gone, and for the first time, I realize that the very tips of his ears are pointed. The wind catches the edges of his tunic, his sash, his hair. It tugs gently for several long, silent minutes.
“This kingdom needs a ruler. A true ruler, Nadira,” Jabir says. I hate listening to his voice. I hate how it always sounds like he needs to clear his throat, like his vocal cords are made of gravel. “Perhaps we lost tonight, but this kingdom isn’t going to submit forever under neglect. The people will rise up, Nadira. Whose side will you be on? The side of your king, who tramples us underfoot, who has stolen this kingship as a façade for his own purposes? Or will you serve your people? Will you fight for those who die in the streets every day?”
“I will be no one’s slave any longer.”
“And yet, you so violently defended your kidnapper. Are you so enthralled by him that you will become his slave—his wife? To be disposed of like all the rest?”
He still believes he has power over me. Even now.
I take another step closer.
Jabir’s breath comes faster. Still, his smile widens. “Kill me, little girl. You’ll find you’re not rid of me so easily. I will stay with you long after—”
He freezes. His eyes bulge.
That expression of pained shock sears like a brand across my brain.
Then his body falls, his blood leaking into the sand as his eyes stare unseeing at me. I cross the distance between us and use numb fingers to rip the blade from his neck, my second from his hand, and my third from the door. My vision goes black. It clears a second later, just enough for me to clean my blades on his sleeve before I sheathe them again.
My feet won’t move. My eyes won’t look away.
He’s gone. Just like that. I killed him. The man who made my life a living hell.
“I killed your men for hurting the Neverseen King,” I whisper. “I killed you for murdering my parents.”
Jabir’s life for my parents’. The most unfair trade under the sun.
I stare at his body, slumped against the door that was my prison for the last ten years. When I draw in a deep breath, copper coats the inside of my nostrils. I let it out in a sigh.
I’m still not the monster I always wanted to be.
If I was truly a monster, I’d savor the sight of Jabir’s blood. I’d laugh over his corpse. I’d desecrate his remains. His death wouldn’t have been fast. I would have dragged it on for hours—for days.
But I didn’t.
Because deep down, I’m nothing but a frightened little girl.
No amount of magic, power, violence, or skill can change who I am. Nothing can make me strong when it is my soul that’s weak.
I curse bitterly under my breath and march back to the palace.