Down Comes the Night – Allison Saft

Wren had never seen a worse radial fracture. She replayed the break over and over again, each moment frozen like hoarfrost on the backs of her eyes. The boy, desperate to escape, scrabbling up the side of a tree. His fingers catching on a branch. The crack of snapping wood. The crack of snapping bone. And then, worst of all—the flare of her magic, calling out to heal him as he screamed. Wren perched on the knee of an upturned root, watching as Una bound the boy to the tree he’d fallen from. Shadows hung as heavy as fog in the copse, and what little sunlight leaked through the alders turned sallow, gleaming cold on the shard of bone. It jutted from his wrist like a splinter waiting to be pulled loose. Volar apex angulation, Wren thought. Dorsal displacement of the fragment. No doubt an accompanying break in the ulnar styloid process. It was an easy diagnosis of an injury she could heal in minutes. “Don’t think I can’t see what’s on your mind.

” Una dropped the chains, and they struck the earth with a decisive thud. As always, she cut an imposing figure in her black military tunic, its stern rows of buttons shining like steel. “Enemy spies don’t deserve your pity.” Maybe not. But they didn’t deserve cruelty, either. Wren rested her chin on her fists, trying for nonchalance even as her stomach roiled with guilt. “I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean.” “No? Then perhaps I imagined that misty look in your eye.” She bristled but held her tongue. Una had been so ornery all morning, and Wren was almost exhausted enough to oblige her with the fight she clearly wanted.

Only one more hour, she reminded herself. Soon enough, the rest of their unit would arrive with the carriage, and from there they would drag their prisoner back to Knockaine for a proper interrogation. Una snatched the boy’s rucksack and stole out of the clearing. Silhouetted at the cliff’s edge, she carved a gash in a sky reddened with sunset. Its light burned like embers in the darkness of her eyes and deepened every worried line on her face. Wren sighed, her breath pluming in the winter air. Her best friend had always carried far too much responsibility on her shoulders. As much as she wanted to throttle Una right now, she empathized with her. Times like these demanded draconian measures. Three of the Queen’s Guard had vanished in the last four months while patrolling the border Danu shared with Cernos and Vesria, and Queen Isabel had tasked Una with finding out why.

More accurately, with every rag in the city publishing invectives against her, the queen had demanded evidence that her greatest enemies—those so-called Vesrian heathens—were responsible. Although she’d brokered an armistice with Vesria a year ago, her subjects were still reeling and embittered from the surrender of a centuries-long holy war. Now that the fragile peace had splintered, the queen refused to appear ineffectual and passive any longer. No slight would go unpunished. But after three weeks of searching, of bitter cold and sleepless nights, all Wren and Una had to offer Isabel was this boy, whose only crime so far was running from them. So much good it had done him. Wren studied the grisly arc of his forearm, the unnatural angle of his thumb. The air had thickened with the too-familiar stench of old blood: saltwater and rust and sugar gone bad. Her magic bubbled up within her, eager to mend him, but she knew Una would never allow it. It was painfully predictable how it would all unfold, this moral debate on whether or not it was right to torture their prisoner.

They’d known each other too long—five years now, after they met as recruits in the military academy. They’d trained together, taken their meals together, fought in the war together. And since then … Well, things were complicated. Una met her eyes, her braid falling over her shoulder like a spill of dark water. Wren turned away before she could decide what shimmered in her superior’s eyes. Still, all Una’s bluster guaranteed was their prisoner’s slow death by infection. A winning argument on medical grounds, if not on moral ones. She’d just have to build her case carefully. Steeling herself, Wren sidled as close to Una as she dared, her footsteps crackling softly in the thin layer of snow. From here, Wren could see the shadows of the bare trees curling like vines over Una’s wrists, deep violet against her ochre skin.

She held a tattered notebook up to the light and pinned the fluttering pages down against the wind. Wren gathered her cloak tighter and buried her nose into its fur-lined collar. They hadn’t been truly alone in weeks, and now that she had Una cornered, she hardly knew what to say. In the end, she settled on what felt most honest. “Are you alright?” Una snapped the notebook shut. “Why?” “Permission to speak freely?” she asked dryly. When Una cut her an irritated look, she continued, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s just a hunch, considering you’ve been snappish and brooding all day, and now you’ve decided you don’t care about a child—” “A child,” Una scoffed. “You’re too soft on him. He’s about as old as we were when we were recruited.

” “Be that as it may, his arm is going to get horribly infected.” Sunlight glinted off the saber on Una’s hip, and for one horrible moment, the hilt looked wet with blood. “Good. Maybe that’ll loosen his tongue.” Wren let out a startled laugh at how infuriatingly typical Una was being. “Forget it. I don’t care about him right now. I care about you. I wanted to check on you, since I know this mission has been … difficult.” “It’s been long.

I just want to get this over with.” Avoidance. The most effective tool in Una Dryden’s armory to keep everyone at a carefully measured distance. Wren wanted to remind her it was only the two of them out here, but pushing a mountain would prove easier. They each dealt with their grief in their own way, and Wren would respect that—for now. Because if she were being honest, she didn’t know if she could bear to talk about it either. She wasn’t ready to admit she had anything to grieve. Last month, Sergeant Jacob Byers—her only friend besides Una—had gone missing. One day, they were bickering over normal things, like whose turn it was to buy dinner when they stayed late at work, or which of them would file Una’s paperwork. The next, he left on a routine patrol of the border they shared with Vesria and Cernos.

Thanks to the cease-fire, those missions were supposed to be formalities. He was supposed to come back within the week. He never did. In her darker moments, Wren wished she had been with him on that patrol. Maybe it would’ve been her instead. Maybe if she’d seen something—a shred of his uniform or his knife forgotten in the snow—she could mourn him properly. But she refused to believe he was dead. Until she had answers, she couldn’t lay him to rest. This prisoner—this boy—did nothing to assuage her. With his coltish limbs and streaming nose, he hardly looked capable of petty theft, much less kidnapping.

“Are you alright?” Una asked, jarring her from her thoughts. No, she wanted to say. Instead, she said, “I am.” “Really?” Una drawled. “Just a minute ago, you looked like you wanted to strangle me with those chains.” “And why ever would I want to do that? You’re always perfectly agreeable.” Una barked out a laugh. “Now I know you have an agenda. Out with it.” Wren considered changing the subject; it was so rare to get a smile out of Una these days.

But she had to secure the boy’s safety before she could let herself relax. “Let me heal his arm. At this rate, you’ll have to interrogate his corpse. His wound is going to go necrotic before we reach Knockaine.” At first, Una did not react. She stood so still Wren almost believed she hadn’t listened to anything she’d said. Then, without a word, Una extended the notebook into the empty space between them. Wren gingerly took the edge of it. “What’s this?” “See for yourself.” Wren began to leaf through the book.

Names and physical descriptions, written in a child’s halting scrawl, filled page after water-stained page. With a sinking horror, she realized she knew all these people. Bold red marks slashed some of them out, but she couldn’t exactly make sense of the pattern. Captured targets, maybe? But no—there was Byers’s name, entirely unmarked. The letters shimmered through her tears. “What is this?” she repeated, unable to keep the mounting dread out of her voice. “A catalog of every soldier who’s patrolled this section of the border for the past year. I found it in his bag. It looks like he’s been documenting potential victims.” Every righteous protest crumbled to ash in her mouth.

It chilled her to trace the shape of her own name. Then the decisive cut through Una’s. No, this couldn’t be right. “Still think he’s just an innocent child?” Una asked. Hissing through her teeth, Wren thrust the notebook back at Una. The skin-crawling sensation of those cursed pages still lingered on her fingertips. “It doesn’t matter what I think. It matters that he’s wounded.” “It seems to matter plenty what you think. Every time you get an idea like this in your head, it goes poorly.

” “That’s not true.” “Then allow me to remind you of the time you insisted on stopping to heal a soldier during the march on Donn.” Wren didn’t need a reminder. The thorough excoriation from her superiors, and later the queen, guaranteed she’d never forget that mistake. “Or perhaps the time you wanted to save a stray dog caught in the cross fire?” Now Una was being unfair. Heat climbed up Wren’s neck. “That was different.” “It’s no different,” Una snapped. “If anything, you’re painfully consistent. You’re too easily distracted by your feelings and hell-bent on self-sabotage.

I need you by my side, Wren, and the queen will discharge you for another offense. His suffering is a small price to pay, especially if he had a hand in capturing Byers. He’s a worm, beneath your pity. Let it go.” But she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. “She wouldn’t dare. Who would replace me?” Una looked like she wanted to say something but refrained. “She doesn’t have another healer like me. How many lives did the antibiotic I developed save? How many surgeries did I help perform on the battlefield?” “Talent isn’t hard to come by.

All the medical advancements in the world won’t save you from the queen’s impatience forever.” “But being the best healer in the Guard will.” It was something she told herself every day, but right now, Wren wasn’t sure if she believed it. Isabel—or, as her illegitimate niece, should Wren say Her Majesty?—had made it painfully clear that one more mistake would land Wren back in the Order of the Maiden. She had been raised in the abbey, but it wasn’t home. There, Wren had been nothing but a castaway: forgotten, unwanted, purposeless. She never wanted to feel that way again. Medicine and magic had provided her an escape, but to return would be to admit she truly was as worthless as the queen thought she was. Which meant she couldn’t afford to slip up today. Even if treating their prisoner this way was cruel.

Even if it was wrong. “Lieutenant Southerland,” Una said. Such a cheap trick, to invoke rank at a time like this. “As your commanding officer, I’m responsible for you. Your mistakes are on my head.” “Oh, spare me the speech.” “Enough.” Righteousness rang like the clash of metal in Una’s voice, every syllable as sharp as a blade. “Until the others get here, I won’t give him a single opportunity to escape. I know you think I’m being cruel, but he’s the only lead we have on Byers.

” She knew, but her stomach still twisted in guilty knots. “I’m going to sweep the area one more time, so don’t do anything reckless while I’m gone,” Una said. The word reckless struck Wren like a pebble between the eyes. She’d heard it enough over the years to know the real meaning of that word. Emotional. Weak. “Yes, Major,” Wren muttered sourly. With one last dissatisfied scowl at the boy, Una walked toward the dark, silent wood. Her black hair swung like an executioner’s rope, and brittle twigs snapped like fingers beneath her boots. As Wren watched her leave, she sighed with exasperated longing.

Although military life offered her freedom from the cloister, Wren’s oath to the Queen’s Guard meant little in itself. Una, however, filled her with purpose. Despite her sharp edges, Una cared deeply about her country and her subordinates—about protecting them at any and all costs. Following her was a creed Wren chose, not one foisted on her. I need you by my side. And there Wren would stay, even if it she couldn’t always stomach what at any and all costs entailed. She cursed the empathy that flowed in her blood as surely as her healing magic did. If only she could filter it out, boil it down to something curable like a disease. Then everyone would know for certain she belonged in the Guard. Wren slumped into the yellowing litter of pine needles and groaned at the tension headache blooming in her temples and the damp chill of the earth seeping into her skirts.

Overhead, the trees dripped with melting icicles and glittered with a delicate crust of snow. Now that they were alone, she stole a sidelong glance at the boy. His white, freckled face was bloodless, as sickly pale as his exposed bone—and nobly but unconvincingly stoic. Even from a distance, the trembling of his shoulders revealed him for what he was, a scared child holding back tears. Be detached, Wren reminded herself sharply. Be strong. She would not be moved. Not by a Vesrian spy. This close to the Vesrian border, it made perfect sense that his people had abducted their soldiers. While neither side had officially broken the armistice, Wren knew it was only a matter of time.

She’d grown up alongside war, could smell it brewing like a storm on the horizon. And once it came … Danubians lived by the core tenet of the Triplicate Goddess, the Threefold Law: Whatever is done unto you, let it be repaid thrice over. Wren had seen enough during her military service to know what happened next. Entire towns burned. Entire battalions slain. Blood repaid in blood until there would be none left to spill. Neither country would survive it this time. A muffled sob drew her out of her thoughts and twisted her traitorous heart with pity. She should have been desensitized to this by now, but her magic made it too easy to empathize, to feel the throb in his mangled arm. It hurt, all of it.

It always had. This is so wrong, she thought. If she let this boy suffer until they brought him before the queen to answer for his crimes, how much better was she than the Vesrians? Una’s backpack lay in the snow-dusted grass beside her, its front pocket enticingly open. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, she decided. Before she could change her mind, she took the key. In her hands it was a weapon, catching the sunlight like something sharp and deadly. As she approached the boy, he glared at her with an intensity that turned her stomach. It was a look as wild and vicious as an open flame—one she’d seen only on the front line. Hatred. “Stay away from me,” he growled.

His accent stilled her. It wasn’t Vesrian. It wasn’t like anything she’d ever heard. Then again, she’d never listened to Vesrians speak much. Their language was a distant memory, its rhythms indistinct echoes in her nightmares. Shaking it off, she said, “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m a healer.” He pressed himself flat against the tree. “I don’t believe you.” “Alright, then.

” Wren sighed impatiently as she tossed her medical bag on the ground. She rummaged for a painkiller. “Got a name?” “Whatever you’re going to do, do it already.” His voice cracked. “I’m not afraid to die.” “Clearly not.” Wren fished a vial of poppy tincture from her bag. “Although you may want a painkiller. Setting your arm may feel worse than death, at least for a minute.” “I’ll be fine.

” He still thought she was going to hurt him. It was almost precious. “Suit yourself.” In his unbroken stare, Wren saw Una, hard and defiant. It filled her with affection, of all things. “Look. Whether you’re guilty or not, it’s not right to leave you like this. So what’s it going to be?” In the silence, she marked time with the sound of his tight, shallow breathing. At last, the boy squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away from her. “Alright.

Do it.” Finally, an ounce of trust. She’d take it. Wren unlocked the manacle from his injured wrist and held him fast. As she called on her magic, a second network of veins, the fola, ran silver and glimmering down the length of her arm. An aura radiated from beneath her skin, wrapping her hand in a glow like moonlight. “Ready?” He nodded, his features stark and hollow in the cold, flickering light. Wren squeezed his wrist reassuringly, the only preparation she could offer. Then her magic poured into him, and he whimpered through the realignment of bone, the rapid division of cells. The healing took several minutes, and by the end of it, the boy was panting and clammy with sweat.

He ran his fingers over the unbroken skin and the straight line of his forearm with a slack-jawed awe, as if Wren had performed a miracle. She beamed with satisfaction. Her healing was far from miraculous— only a biological wonder. Even so, she wasn’t sure she would ever grow accustomed to her patients’ wide-eyed gratitude. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” She had a thousand questions, but his trust was a delicate thing, like a rabbit’s spine. It would be easily broken if squeezed. “I can tell you’re not a fighter.” The boy huffed.

“What do you know?” “Nothing, I guess.” After a pause, he spoke almost too quietly to hear. “You wouldn’t understand. Where I come from, this is the only option. My family can’t protect me anymore.” “I do understand.” Wren smiled sadly through her exhaustion. War had made orphans of them all. All at once, uncertainty prickled her skin. She shouldn’t speak to him this way.

She couldn’t. No matter how pathetic he looked as he cradled his arm like a broken doll, he was connected to her comrades’ disappearances. He was her enemy. A spy. A Vesrian. The boy must have seen her darkening expression. “Please. I swear I don’t know anything.” Her magic still sung in his veins, forging a connection between them. Every one of his vital signs betrayed him.

The stutter of his heart shouted, liar, liar, liar. Before she could say another word, he slammed his fist into her solar plexus. Her breath fled her lungs in a whine, and as white burst behind her eyes, she watched her life unravel like this: the boy scrabbling for the key in the grass; her body surging forward to stop him; her skull cracking against the tree; the rattle of chains and cold metal clamping around her wrist. He moved far too quickly to be a civilian, and the energy humming in her very bones whispered, magic. The world split like a cell in mitosis: two wavering keys fell from the boy’s open hands and into the bloody slush. Step by swaying step, two boys backed away from her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. Then he was gone. It was over in a moment, quicker than her diaphragm could unseize. He’d manipulated her.

And she’d let him. With a shout of frustration, Wren pulled against her restraint until it rubbed her wrist raw and red. No matter how hard she struggled, the key was just barely out of reach. Her stomach churned with a familiar dread, and her breathing was too heavy, too loud. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. She had lost their only lead. Her only chance to learn what happened to Byers. Her only chance to ensure no one else went missing. The queen was going to kill her if Una didn’t first.

No, death would be a blessing. She’d proven the queen right. Wren didn’t deserve her approval, and she certainly didn’t deserve her spot in the Guard if she let her emotions make her weak and gullible and— Reckless, just like Una said. She was right, as always. Talent couldn’t protect her from the queen. As long this bleeding heart beat within her, she would never be good enough.

.

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