Bone Crier’s Dawn – Kathryn Purdie

“WATCH OUT, SABINE!” JULES’S LOW and scratchy voice calls from a mineshaft above. I barely have time to move aside before she drops into the tunnel. A rush of air hits Bastien’s candle, and the flame sputters out. We’re thrown into absolute darkness. “Merde,” Bastien curses. “Relax,” Jules says. “Marcel always has a tinderbox in his pack.” “And another candle,” Marcel adds. “Excellent,” Jules replies. “The thunderstorm is loud enough now. It’s time to blow that wall.” We’re in the mines beneath the catacombs close to Beau Palais, the castle where Prince Casimir lives, where he’s holding Ailesse captive. Not for much longer. My heart beats faster. Today, we rescue my sister.

A few seconds later, flint and steel strike together. The soft glow meets a candlewick and snaps into a brighter flame. Bastien and I elbow forward for the candle. The alliance I’ve made with the boy who loves Ailesse—who she somehow loves in return—is tenuous at best. Just because he and his friends are helping me free her from her abductor doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven them for also holding her captive. “I’ll do this myself,” Marcel says. “Wait!” Jules’s eyes widen at her younger brother. It’s too late. He lowers the candle to the powder. Whoosh.

Fire streaks an angry line toward the cask. Jules yanks Marcel to his feet. Bastien spins and runs the other way. I shove him faster. Ailesse would never forgive me if he died. We race until the dense atmosphere eats up all light and sound behind us. My nerves sting, waiting for the explosion. Did the fire burn out before it reached the cask? I glance over my shoulder. BOOM. A massive burst of flames zips toward us and throws me backward.

I hit Bastien. We crash onto the ground. A second later, Marcel and Jules topple onto us. Chalky smoke and debris flash by. Sharp rubble scrapes against my sleeves. The chaos finally settles into fat flakes of twirling ash. No one moves for a long moment. We lie in a tangle of legs, arms, and heads. Finally Marcel slides off our piled bodies, and his floppy hair bounces. “I may have misjudged the impact of the blast.

” Jules groans. “I’m going to murder you.” She rolls off and shakes dust and ash from her golden braid. “You better hope that sounded like thunder, or any moment now all the soldiers in Beau Palais are going to flood this tunnel.” We’ve been waiting for the perfect storm to mask the noise of the explosion, and as poor luck would have it, it fell on the same day as the new moon. Ferrying night. If this rescue attempt fails, I’ll have to lead my famille on the land bridge myself and ferry the souls of the departed—the sacred duty of each Leurress, given to us by the gods of the afterlife, who we descend from. But I can’t lead my famille. Ailesse is the only person alive who knows the song on the bone flute that opens the Gates to the Beyond. She was meant to be matrone, not me.

I scoot off of Bastien and offer a hand to help him up. He hesitates, then exhales and takes it. Despite our bickering, I want his assistance. We’ll find Ailesse faster if we work together. We stand side by side and stare into the hazy gray light shining in from the blasted hole. I inhale a deep breath. After fifteen long days, we finally have access to Beau Palais. “Everyone ready?” Bastien cautiously rubs his back where my mother stabbed him. The wound is still healing. Only in the last week has he been able to walk without grimacing.

Jules nods and adjusts her cloak. I tighten my fists. Marcel settles into a comfortable position. He’s going to serve as watch. If the tunnel is compromised, he’ll light a small explosive filled with sulfur and pepper seeds. The stench will warn us not to come back this way. Meanwhile, Jules is going to guard our point of entry into the castle above. Bastien waves Jules and me forward. The three of us advance to the end of the tunnel. I reach the wall first and climb the rubble.

Through the blasted four-foot hole, I stare inside a dry castle well lined with river rock. Its construction isn’t yet complete. King Durand, Casimir’s father, commissioned it to replace a more vulnerable well outside the castle keep. While Bastien and Jules have been spying in Dovré and gleaning these facts about Beau Palais, I’ve been forced to spend most of my time at Château Creux with my famille. The Leurress are shaken by the news of Odiva’s death. All I told them is our matrone died ferrying alongside Ailesse on an ancient bridge in an underground cavern. If they knew Odiva ran through the Gates of the Underworld to join her true love—my father, a man who wasn’t her sanctioned amouré—it might spark anarchy. Once Ailesse comes back and rightfully replaces me as matrone, I’ll let her decide what to reveal about our mother, and I’ll retreat to the comfort of her shadow. I leap to the opposite side of the well, grab an iron rung, and climb a ladder built for the well diggers. They’re not at the castle today.

No one labors during La Liaison except entertainers and those preparing food for the three-day festival. We’d hoped to sneak in through the main entrance, but King Durand isn’t holding a public celebration. According to rumor, he’s too ill. But he was ill before Ailesse was taken captive, and the castle gates have only been locked since Prince Casimir brought her here. Jules leaps onto the ladder after me. I envy the leather leggings she’s wearing. My shoes keep tangling on the hem of my simple blue dress. Bastien follows last, and the three of us rise sixty feet to the top of the well. It’s covered by an iron grate, which scrapes loudly as we slide it off. A clap of thunder muffles the sound.

For now, the rainfall doesn’t reach us. We’re in the tight quarters of the castle well tower. I creep to the tower door and peek through a small window at the top. I can’t see much of the castle courtyard beyond the pelting rain—even with my far-reaching vision, thanks to the power from my nighthawk grace bone—but I make out the blue-and-gold-striped awnings that line the perimeter. They provide shelter for a few servants who scurry across the wet cobblestones to reach the other side. One awning caps an arched passageway that leads inside the castle—the entrance we’ll use. Bastien removes his dusty cloak and tosses it over to Jules. Beneath it, he’s dressed in the simple garb of a castle dungeons soldier. I also throw off my cloak and tuck a few stray black curls into my servant’s cap. I slip my grace bone necklace beneath the neckline of the uniform dress Bastien stole for me and hide my bone knife in the sheath under my apron.

Bastien turns to Jules. “See you soon.” She sits on the rim of the well, still a little breathless from climbing. “Promise to keep your head, all right? If you can’t pull this off today, don’t be reckless. We’ll figure out something else. We still have ten and a half months before—” “This will work.” He flexes his jaw muscle. “Come on, Sabine.” He slips out the door before Jules can say anything else. I’m quick to follow.

I don’t wish to discuss the soul-bond between Ailesse and Casimir, either— the bond Bastien thought he shared with her until I discovered the truth. Now Ailesse has to kill Casimir within a year from the time the gods sealed their lives together, or she’ll die with him. I’ll make sure it happens before we leave the castle today. I’ll hand her the bone knife and persuade her to save herself. Bastien and I head through the rain for the arched passageway. We’ve committed to memory the map of Beau Palais he pieced together after conversing with a retired castle servant. “After three cups of tavern ale, the man was an open book,” Bastien told me. We shake off the rain once we’re inside the castle. We’re standing in a stone foyer that intercepts a long corridor running left and right. Straight ahead is the great hall.

Servants mill about, setting gold plates and goblets on a few gathered tables. Garlands of vibrant late-summer flowers twirl around towering columns that support a vaulted ceiling. Blue banners embroidered with the gold sun symbol of Dovré—an homage to the sun god, Belin—hang alongside green banners with the tree symbol of the earth goddess, Gaëlle. I’m told La Liaison is held to invoke their joint blessing on the upcoming harvest. Bastien and I share a quick glance and nod before we part ways. He heads left, and I head right. His direction leads toward the dungeons entrance, and mine accesses the staircase to the third level. Ailesse could also be locked in one of the royal apartments up there. I’ve only taken a few steps when a handsome boy with strawberry hair walks around a column in the great hall, fifteen feet away. My body goes rigid, my blood cold—then scorching hot.

Prince Casimir. He’s wearing a burgundy doublet over a loose linen shirt and fitted breeches. A simple crown made from a thin band of gold wraps across the middle of his forehead. He hasn’t laid eyes on me yet, but I still can’t force myself to move. Images from the last full moon crash through my brain: Casimir taking Ailesse’s grace bones, carrying her away in his arms; Ailesse struggling against him while her injured leg dripped blood; me seeing them from a distance as I fought his soldiers; Bastien, also helpless, lying on the bridge and bleeding out from his stab wound. “Can you add more wildflowers?” Casimir asks a female servant while surveying the garland draped around the column. “Ailesse is fond of them.” “Of course, Your Highness.” “I want everything perfect for when she meets my father tonight.” My mind snags on his words.

Flowers for Ailesse? A meeting with the king? I glance at Bastien. He’s taken cover behind a potted tree at the corner of the great hall and an adjoining corridor. From his deeply furrowed brow, he’s just as confused as I am. How can Ailesse attend a dinner with Casimir’s father? Isn’t she locked away? “I understand, Your Highness.” The servant bows, and Casimir starts to turn in my direction. I jerk around, shuffle to the nearest table, and fuss with a place setting. I itch to hold the bone knife. If I could stab him right now, I would. But that would kill Ailesse. Their lives are woven together.

She must be the one to wield the ritual blade and kill her amouré. The prince’s footsteps slowly clip toward me. My pulse pounds faster. I lower my head and pray to the goddess of the Night Heavens. Elara, don’t let him recognize me. “Pardon me, but are you new here?” I stiffen, keeping my back to him. “Yes,” I squeak. “What is your name?” I could run. With my nighthawk speed, I could make it to the third level before Casimir had a chance to catch me. If only I knew which room Ailesse was in.

By the time I find her, he’ll have the whole castle on alert. “Ginette,” I murmur, feigning to be shy. “Ginette, I am your prince and future king.” Casimir’s voice is warm and carries the charm that made me lightheaded when we first met. I had performed a proxy ritual to summon and kill Ailesse’s amouré, expecting Bastien to come, but Casimir came instead, and for several wonderful and terrible moments, I thought he was my amouré, not hers. “You need not be afraid of me,” he says. “In this castle, I treat my servants with regard.” A scoff rips out of my throat. “And how do you treat your prisoners?” My subterfuge is pointless. Whether I run or confront him now, he’s going to discover me.

“You can’t win Ailesse with flowers and gold and false honor. She will always see you as her abductor.” My jackal hearing catches his soft intake of breath. “Sabine?” he asks. I lift my chin and turn to face him. Casimir gazes back at me with widened stone-blue eyes. I fight to keep the heat in my blazing stare. His restrained demeanor carries wisdom, depth, and strength. It makes it hard to remember he’s the same person who felt entitled to steal my sister away. “Where are you keeping Ailesse?” I demand.

I pull out my hidden necklace and let my grace bones dangle, exposed, over the bodice of my dress. The three bones hang side by side—a fire salamander skull; a crescent-moon pendant, carved from the femur of a rare golden jackal; and the leg and claw of a nighthawk. Two guards at the edge of the room take a step forward, but Casimir holds up a hand to stall them. He may not understand what I am—what Ailesse is—but he knows my bones hold power. “Ailesse isn’t my prisoner. I invited her to stay with me, and she agreed.” Lies. Ailesse would never consent to that. “Then tell her I’d like to pay a visit.” “You know I can’t do that.

” His tone exudes a maddening level of calm. “You tried to kill me, Sabine. You are not welcome in this castle.” The golden jackal in me snaps. I whip out the bone knife beneath my apron. Casimir quickly draws a jeweled dagger. Our blades meet each other’s throats at the same time. His dagger’s sharp edge presses against the tendon of my neck. “What would Ailesse think of you if you killed her sister?” “No less than she’d think of you if you . ” An animalistic screech rings in my ears and drowns out the rest of his words.

A small reflection appears in his pupils. A bird with a white heart-shaped face. Somehow, as I’m staring at Casimir, the bird grows larger. I gasp. This is a vision. It has to be. I’m seeing the silver owl—the goddess Elara’s bird. She hasn’t appeared to me in her physical or transparent form since the night Casimir abducted Ailesse. Visions like this are unheard-of among the Leurress, but the silver owl has shown me two before, and both visions were in connection to saving my sister. The owl grows to full size and hovers in front of Casimir with her wings unfurled.

He can’t see her; he’s looking right through her at me. It’s like she’s protecting him. I don’t understand. The silver owl once wanted Casimir dead. She led me to kill the golden jackal, carve a flute from its bone, and use it to lure the prince during my proxy rite of passage. I could have killed him then without dooming Ailesse to die in return. The ritual would have protected her. The owl beats her wings once, and my surroundings change. I feel the castle floor beneath me, but I see the cliffs overlooking the Nivous Sea above. It’s the night of the last new moon.

Ailesse is playing the siren song on the bone flute, trying to open the Gates of the Beyond. She keeps playing. The harrowing melody floats to my ears and burns through my mind. I’ve remembered snatches of it before, but not every measure. Now all the notes pulse vividly inside me and plant deep roots. I doubt I’ll ever forget them. What’s happening? I came here to rescue Ailesse, not see a memory, not learn a song. I came here to help her kill Casimir. Why isn’t the silver owl helping me? She beats her wings again. Now Ailesse is in the underground cavern on the fragile soul bridge.

She moves toward the Gates of the Underworld with headstrong determination. I hear myself shouting for her to stay back, but she won’t listen. I blink and see Casimir again through the body of the owl. My bone knife shakes at his neck. Maybe the owl isn’t protecting him from me. Maybe she’s protecting Ailesse from me. I could threaten Casimir, fight off his soldiers, find Ailesse, free her . but what if my sister shouldn’t lead the ferrying tonight? She barely resisted stepping through the Gates of the Underworld last time. The only thing that distracted her was Odiva stabbing Bastien. Perhaps .

perhaps my sister is safer in Beau Palais. For now. My eyes blur with infuriating tears. Casimir’s brows hitch together. He doesn’t know what to make of my reaction. For the longest time, all I’ve been trying to do is save Ailesse. Why am I prevented at every turn? I pull the bone knife away. The silver owl disappears. I curse the goddess’s messenger, but I’ve learned to trust her. She warned me about Odiva before I knew my mother’s crimes.

She led me to Casimir, who helped me finally find Ailesse. She’ll help again when the time is right, when Ailesse’s freedom won’t lead to her death. She knows more than I do. Casimir’s dagger holds steady at my neck. He opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but his expression is torn between anger and pity. I harden my glare on him, even while my tears fall. I still hate him. My actions don’t change that. One of his soldiers clears his throat. “Shall we take her to the dungeons, Your Highness?” The tip of Casimir’s blade slides to lift my chin as he deliberates.

He swallows. “Yes.” The soldiers advance. Casimir lowers his dagger down my neck. He’s going to cut the leather cord of my necklace. With nighthawk speed and jackal strength, I grab his wrist and slam the hilt of my knife into his upper arm. His dagger tumbles from his grip. Before it clatters to the stones, I drive my knee into his gut. He buckles forward. I shove him to the ground and jab my elbow in his back.

I pluck up his fallen dagger. The first soldier swings low for me. I jump over his blade and spring off Casimir’s body. I bolt away before the second soldier can attack. Casimir shouts my name. He’s back on his feet and chasing after me. His soldiers follow. I run toward the long corridor, past Bastien’s hiding place. He shoots me a livid glance. “What the hell are you doing?” he hisses.

“Leaving. Tell Ailesse I know the siren song. I can open the Gates.” I spin around and fling the jeweled dagger at Casimir, but purposely throw off my aim. It sails above his head and clangs against a stone column. While Casimir is distracted, I toss the bone knife into a potted tree opposite Bastien’s. “Tell Ailesse to finish him,” I say. His eyes narrow on the barely exposed hilt of the knife. He’ll have to come back for it later. He gives me a determined nod before he slinks away in another direction.

I run past the arched passageway that leads to the courtyard. I can’t leave the castle through the dry well. I’d endanger Jules and Marcel and expose Bastien’s safe exit. Casimir shouts for more soldiers. Boots pound closer down an adjacent stairwell and branching corridor. A large man emerges and grabs for me. I narrowly dodge him and keep sprinting. I focus on a stained-glass window thirty yards ahead. The late afternoon sunlight beats in through the colored panes and lights up a majestic image of Belin, the sun god, riding his white stallion through the sky. I cast off my servant’s cap and apron and pick up speed.

I yank loose the ties at my shoulders that hold up my hemp-spun overdress. It falls away from the chemise I wear beneath, and I kick it aside. I can’t have it dragging me down. “Stop!” Casimir calls after me. The stained-glass window is five yards away. I grit my teeth and leap off the ground. My nighthawk grace heightens the jump. I cast up my arms to protect my face. My body hits the glass. The window shatters in a rainbow of shards.

Sixty feet below me, the Mirvois River rushes by. I tumble toward the whitecap currents.

.

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