I couldn’t remember when Dunja had come to sit next to me, our feet dangling over the empty darkness below the summit’s lip. Above us, the night glared moonlit bright, stars winking like bared wolves’ teeth. I could still hear their music, but just faintly, and tonight it was much sharper than usual. A violin played with a blade instead of a bow.
Despite all the light, the valley was far enough below to pool in vales of black between the even darker shards of mountains on either side. I’d been so scared to climb up here, hammering heart and palms slick with terror, metal in my mouth. And why? In case I slipped and fell and died? So stupid, when dying was so easy they sometimes called it a mercy. If I inched forward just a little, leaned into all that waiting air, I probably wouldn’t even feel the landing.
And I would definitely stop feeling everything else.
Still, she didn’t make me move. I felt a bright, high-pitched chime of love for my aunt, for letting me hurt just a little longer. Her arm lay so light over my shoulders that I hadn’t even noticed when she first touched me. And her side next to mine felt just as insubstantial, as if she were made of gathered thistledown. Like a huffed-out breath would blow her apart.
How long had we even been sitting there? I wondered. I didn’t realize I had said it out loud until Dunja responded. “A few hours, perhaps? Izkara wouldn’t hear of leaving us be at first—that iron-cast bitch never did know when to yield a little—but sometimes our old mother does have the forbearance to know when to let loose the reins. The wisdom of the centuries, you could call it. Especially when there’s only one way down for the horse to take, once it’s ready to come,” she added wryly.
Beneath the scrim of humor, her voice was desperately heavy. It sounded just like I felt. All of her sounded like I felt, wind keening over a desert so lonely that it hadn’t ever dreamed of life. Fjolar might have flicked Dunja away like a burr, but when he stole Iris and disappeared with her, it still meant Dunja had lost him yet again.
And beneath that loss, I could hear the looping echo of her love. As if she stood on a mountaintop calling out his name just to hear it come whipping back to her, to land on her arm like a hunter’s hawk. Sinking in its talons until she thrilled with the pain of its homecoming.
Even as much as I ached for Iris, the raw fervor of my aunt’s love made my insides wilt with sympathy. Without thinking, I hummed a little to soothe her, a delicate, questing arpeggio meant to be a balm.
She flinched so violently it brought me up short. “Stop,” she grated out. “I don’t want your comfort, little niece. It hurts worse than the hurting.”
“How can you stand it?” I whispered to her. “Riss is gone, but maybe—she might still come back. She’s strong like that, you know? She makes it through when anyone else wouldn’t know the first step to take. But him . . . he left you. Twice. How can you take it? How can you want him back?”
She turned to look at me, her face close enough to mine that I felt the warmth of her sigh skip across my lips. Her tears had left streaks across her cheeks, and the cool wind kept threading strands of white hair through her eyelashes and between her lips. She looked all cut into pieces and then pasted back together, a collage of pointed, perfect features and luminous skin seamed with dried salt. A darker smear trailed along on the left side of her face. When she lifted a hand to touch my cheek, it was dark too, and rough with grit from where she’d rested it on the summit’s stone.
It was Mara’s blood, I realized. Even dried and crusted under Dunja’s nails, it still had the faint, ancient smell of a long-lost Eden. Fully ripe fruit bending every bough, and sunlit air heavy with incense.
“Because it’s what I am now,” she said. Something seemed different about her wide eyes, but in the moonlight, I couldn’t quite tell what it was. “I’m just a thing that loves him. I thought I could be a little bit of something else on top of that. Not quite a person, not anymore—I know what’s too much to ask—but a kind of thing that loved you, too. Enough to set you and your sister free.”
She believed that, I could hear it, she really did. It made my heart ache to half breaking. “But you did try to set us free,” I argued, taking her tiny, bloody hand from my cheek and squeezing it. “You got us all this far. It’s not your fault, what happened. We don’t even know what happened.”
She squeezed my hand back, so tight I nearly gasped. “Then let’s make our way down, sweetness, and find out where we stand.”
WITH MY CHEST an aching hollow empty of my sister’s song, I couldn’t find it in me to be scared of the descent. Still, Dunja picked my way down for me the same way she’d gotten me up. Pinning me to the cliffside with her body, finding me hand- and footholds for every step. So I wouldn’t have to look away from the rock and face the drop even once, or feel the wind course over my back.
I didn’t need her help, but I let her do it anyway. I could hear how it made her feel just a half note better to take care of me this way.
Mara and nine others waited for us at the summit’s base. The first nine, I guessed, the strong ones whose gleam hadn’t been bled pale by centuries of breeding for beauty and grace. They had found her a log to sit on while they waited for us. She perched on it like the burned effigy of a long-dead queen, her tattered dress draped over the wood in a ridiculously artful way. As if being the empress of her line could somehow possibly still matter.
A stone-ringed fire burned at her feet, shimmering blue as the Cattaro Bay at its base and sunrise golden in the crown of the flame. Every once in a while, Mara skimmed her fingers through it idly, like a little girl trailing her hand in water. My first thought was that it must be fake, an illusion kindled by someone’s empty gleam. But even from where Dunja and I stood feet away, I could feel the waves of heat rolling off it.
It reminded me of the bowls full of fire that had surrounded her throne in the ballroom while Riss and I knelt waiting to compete against each other. The memory of it lit my belly with a different kind of flame.
“Of course you are coming with us, fledgling.” Her tripled voice thrummed in my chest like plucked bass strings. It made me want to speak back to her in the same multiplied way. As if that was our own language, special to the two of us. As if we were really family. “Nor do I know why you would think it your place to do otherwise.”
I’d never considered myself a violent person. Riss killed spiders for me, and that only when the paper she slipped under the cupping glass accidentally smashed them on their way outside. And even after having seen Mama hit Riss more times than I could think of without cringing, I couldn’t remember ever wanting to hit her, or anyone else.
“You don’t want to do that, baby witch,” she warned, low. “Izkara—”
“Stem to stern, yeah,” I said through gritted teeth. “I remember.”
Izkara met my eyes, her own huge and scornful in her still-wolfish face. Even with her features warped by bones that should never have trussed human skin, the way her nose and chin pinched into an elegant snout was a weirdly pretty thing to see. Especially with the thick, waist-length tumble of her dark hair. She reminded me of maenads, the Greek maidens who served Dionysus. Women who went mad with wine and ecstatic lust, and tore men into shreds.
Under different circumstances, maybe I could have even liked her, this grandmother so many “greats” removed from me.
“You think you know what you’ve lost,” Izkara rasped around a mouthful of too many teeth. Her incisors and canines were so long they kept her lips parted even between words. “You know less than nothing. And I wonder what your pixie princess would think, to hear you so ready to leave her behind. We have her, of course, and her brother, too; the others have already taken them home. Yet you haven’t even asked of her.”
It was true. I hadn’t spared a single thought for Niko, not since Iris had been taken.
And just days ago I’d finally let her have what she wanted, what had been silently hers for so long. I’d let her have I love you, murmured against her lips and into the hollow of her throat.
I know you love Riss, she’d said right before that. I love Luka, too. But you can’t be scared of her like this, pie. She’ll think whatever she thinks, and of course she’ll still love you even if you love me. And if you’ll finally just say it to me, then maybe . . .
Maybe what? I’d prodded gently.
Maybe I’ll finally feel like I don’t always come in second.
The same shame and guilt I’d felt then crescendoed inside me now. How could I have forgotten my Niko like this, so completely?
“Yes, you will come,” Mara agreed equably. “And then you will listen to your old mother have her say. And after that, I think, you will see nothing so much as the need to stay.”
“Daughter,” she broke in, flicking two fingers to beckon me over. “Bank that fury for a single fraction of a moment, and attend me instead.”
Even without the call of her ribbons, and despite the burns, she was still herself. Gorgeously grotesque, like the scarlet hourglass on a black widow’s bulbous belly. It wasn’t that she compelled me to come, but more like I’d wanted to go to her to begin with and she’d just deigned to remind me of that.
She kept her gaze locked with mine as I picked my way reluctantly to her, my feet slipping over loose stones and slick grass just beginning to dew. Her squared chin tipped up, firelight flinging the ruined patches of her skin into hideous relief. I nearly shied away from it, the evidence of how horribly we’d hurt her. I would never say so to her—she couldn’t deserve my sympathy—but my stomach twisted just the same.
It must have shown on my face. I’d never been able to keep myself blank like Riss. Mara flicked her free hand dismissively, her own face softening. “Do not bother with my afflictions, my tender songbird. They will heal in much less than due time. As it is, I barely feel them.”
It was true. Agony had a droning pitch, a whine like the drill Natalija—Naisha, I reminded myself, not my plain-faced music teacher but a coven daughter centuries old—had used in her shop to engrave instruments with their owners’ initials. I heard nothing like that in Mara, besides the timpani drumming of her urgency.
“Do you see, fledgling?” she murmured in a silky braided whisper. “I feared my spell lay shattered after the three of you crashed through it, children barging into the torrents of what was once a river frozen tame at great expense. And I feel the warming within me, that I am no longer winter through and through. Yet you see—fire still fails to touch me.”
My mouth filled with sawdust. “What does that mean?” I croaked.
“What it means is that the spell has been fractured, rather than entirely broken. He may be free again, but he is not whole, and the shackles I wrought weigh on him still. He will not be quite the monstrously powerful thing that he once was.” Her face tightened, seams cinching at the corners of her eyes and lips. “At least, not yet.”
A silvery note of hope sounded in my chest. So bright and sharp it nearly hurt, chimes struck with a shard of glass. “He?” I echoed breathlessly. “Do you mean that Fjolar—Death—is somehow weaker now?”
Because if he was, maybe it meant that Riss wasn’t trapped where he had taken her. That maybe, somehow, we could get her back.
Mara’s nostrils flared with impatience. “Of course I do not mean my death-son, fledgling.” Her voice pulsed with the steady beat of truth, a baffling undercurrent of sadness lapping beneath. My neck prickled, goose bumps rippling over my skin. Those words brought back the last thing I could remember her saying, after we lost Riss.
My feckless boy—my death-son made of the flesh I lent him—is not what we should fear.
I remembered the rest of it then.
It’s what happens to you, and this whole unready world, she had said, when a king of demons walks its face again.