Tonight, I will make the Alchemist’s blood—Jules Ember’s blood—into a weapon. I stand in a room deep below the ballrooms and balconies of Shorehaven. A timelender hunches across from me, sweating as he mixes powders at his workbench. He’s the latest in a long line of timelenders I’ve commissioned to lure the Alchemist out of hiding. All have been inadequate so far; all have died for it. But something tells me tonight will be different. The air prickles with danger. With promise. The people of Sempera are so uncreative with their precious time, their blood-irons. When they don’t drink them like beasts, they fritter them away to make their flowers bloom, or feed them to their fires to make themselves warm in the winter. But the right blood-iron could burn down the world. When the timelender tips the vial of Jules Ember’s blood into his little cauldron, light flashes through the room—as if we’re not far underground, as if day has come early and all at once. The ash and grime billow around me before the boom knocks us both off our feet. For an instant, flight. I think of the world as a hide stretched taut across the frame of a war drum, the kind I remember from centuries ago.
Someone’s just brought the mallet down. Even as my back hits the floorboards, my blood sings with triumph. An image burns behind my eyelids: a landscape of flames, the outline of a decrepit town with a pathetic name: Crofton. I laugh to myself as I stagger to my feet. The timelender is lying prone on the floor, knocked there by the impact, gasping like a fish. “So it i s you,” he murmurs. My true name, Sorceress, dies on his lips. Never mind that. Inside the bronze cauldron, giving off its own faint light, is a shifting, sparking liquid. No color and every color at the same time, the magic is hard to look at directly with these human eyes.
The man dying at my feet has created it out of Sempera’s finest diamonds and only one year of the blood-iron sweet Jules Ember left behind at Everless. I bring the small cauldron to my lips and drink the Alchemist’s time. Just a little. I have plans for the rest. Pain lances my throat. I breathe, alive, grip the edge of the table as my weak body shudders. I wait for the time to coalesce into a thousand daggers like it did that night at Everless, the night I finally realized who Jules Ember was under her skin, in her heart. I wait for her time to fight its way out of me like something alive. That doesn’t happen. Instead, power seeps into me.
Energy courses through the room, magic in every particle just waiting to be unlocked and set loose on the world, snarling like a pack of wild dogs. I pour a few drops of the liquid into a bottle, dark green to hide its contents’ diamond quality. Aboveground, I hand the bottle to the Everless boy Ivan Tenburn. He’s afraid of me now; he holds it like it will bite him. Good. I need him to be careful. I need our creation to make it to Crofton intact. Where it will deliver the Alchemist to me. “Make me a fire,” I whisper into Ivan’s ear. TO THE CITIZENS OF SEMPERA A NOTICE for the capture of Jules Ember of Crofton, murderer of the First Queen, the late Savior of Sempera, the Lady of Centuries; and of Lord Roan Gerling, beloved son of Lord Nicholas Gerling and Lady Verissa Gerling, devoted brother of Lord Liam Gerling.
A reward of five hundred years of blood-iron is offered for the murderess’s living capture and delivery to Queen Ina Gold’s soldiers. 1 When I wake, my hands are covered in blood. It’s only a trick of the moonlight and shifting shadows. Still, I frantically scrub my palms against my damp cloak, as if such a simple gesture could wipe away the red that stains my memory. I sit in a corner of my friend Amma’s shed right outside of Crofton, my teeth chattering more with fear than cold, as her aunt’s three chickens cluck softly at me from their pen. Spring rain taps against the roof. When I was a girl folded in Papa’s arms, the sound of rain was a lullaby—it sang of new life, of fledgling wheat that would soon be harvested, kneaded, then baked into bread on a blazing hearthstone. The rain lulled me to sleep, as soft and real as the voice of someone I love. Now it’s a faint drum becoming louder with every gust of wind. The sound of doom approaching.
The shape of Crofton drew me in from the woods—the broken line of rooftops against the sky that I’ve seen so many times before. Our cottage is only ten minutes down the path, I realize, then there’s a pang of grief as I remember that it no longer belongs to Papa and me. I would trade all the splendor and luxury of Everless for one more evening by the fire with him. But even Everless is lost to me—my first real home, now forever forbidden. I didn’t mean to stop after fleeing Everless, but when I caught sight of the familiar shed jutting from a recently plowed field, I couldn’t stop myself. My feet moved of their own accord. As if by ducking into this familiar darkness I could turn back time itself, weeks and months of it, and undo everything that’s happened. Say good-bye to Amma, if I were lucky. That was hours ago, in the dead of night. There are soldiers out searching for me.
Jules Ember, the Queen’s killer. I’ve heard them at times, crashing through the undergrowth and clumsily breaking branches, always giving me plenty of time to seek shelter in a cave or up a tree. Now I’m here; now I’m safe— Something snaps outside. It’s loud enough that I hear it over the sound of rain and low rumbles of thunder. I press my eye against a crack in the old boards that make up the wall I’m leaning against, fearing some soldier or wandering bleeder has stumbled upon my hiding place. I’m not sure which would be worse. A bleeder roaming the woods would likely cut my throat, drink all my years for himself without pausing to glance at my face. But a soldier would throw me in chains and drag me to the palace in a prison carriage. It turns out not to matter. All I see outside are the trees as they sway with the wind, their branches bending into whipping, shadowy arms that seem to point to me, whispering— Murderer! Alchemist! I swallow.
For a moment, I swear that I glimpse the face of the girl who hunted me in my childhood nightmares, outlined in a flash of lightning. Pale animal eyes that wear kindness like a mask. Hair dark as the night sky. Her white teeth bared in a grin. When I was a child, Papa told me my dreams could never hurt me—but he lied. Two weeks ago, the girl tore out of my nightmares and stepped into the world. Caro. The Sorceress. My ancient enemy. I breathe in.
Out. I close my eyelids, trying to calm my racing breath, listen to the rain make steady taps on the roof. I hug my knees to my chest, letting the sound fill the darkness around me—but it’s not enough to dispel the knot of anxiety gathering in my chest. In the woods, I was able to ignore my fear. Shove it aside and let my attention be taken up by the task at hand: walk, hunt, hide. Get to Ambergris, the dock city where a ship waits to take me away from the land of Sempera, at Liam Gerling’s arrangement. But, now that I’m here, how could I leave without saying good-bye to Amma? Every day after the sun rises, she comes here to collect eggs for her and her sister Alia’s breakfast. Soon she’ll discover me, and there’s nothing I can do but wait. Wait to see if my old friend will scream at the sight of me, if she’ll run for the soldiers who surely patrol Crofton at every hour of the day and night, hoping to drag me away. Just as I think this, the door creaks open.
I’ve been expecting it, but fear still rips through my body and my head snaps up. Amma is silhouetted in the doorway, a blanket over her shoulders and a woven basket over her arm. She looks well, and joy flickers briefly through me at the sight of her redflushed cheeks. I gave her the blood-irons that Liam Gerling sent me in secret after Papa died just outside the gates of Everless. I’d hoped that the heavy bag of coins would help her build a better life for herself and Alia. My friend rubs a hand over her bleary eyes as she steps inside—then catches sight of me and freezes. I’d meant to stand up, but I’m frozen too. I stare up at Amma, trying to arrange all the words flying around in my head, but she speaks first. “Jules?” she breathes. “Amma.
” My voice cracks on her name, unused to speech from my silent week spent in the woods between Crofton and the Gerling estate. I press a hand to the wall and use it to push myself unsteadily to my feet, but I don’t take a step toward her. Not yet. Not until I’m sure she won’t run from me, screaming. Amma’s mouth opens, then closes in shock. Finally, she whispers, “Please tell me you didn’t do it.” She doesn’t have to say what she means by it. Word of my crimes has spread to every corner of Sempera. That I seduced Roan Gerling while a servant at Everless and used him to gain access to the visiting Queen’s chambers. Then cut Roan’s throat and stabbed the Queen through the heart.
“I didn’t,” I say. My voice comes out hoarse, pleading. “I didn’t, Amma.” Amma stays stone-still in the doorway, her eyes boring into mine, round and glistening. Then she takes a cautious step toward me, moving into a pool of light that bleeds through a hole in the roof. She’s trembling. “Then what happened? Who killed them?” “Her name is Caro,” I say, my voice wavering a little, even though I’ve practiced the speech in my head. It’s hard to force out her name, like the word itself is a stone wedged in my throat. All of Sempera thinks me a murderer. Standing there, helpless and trembling in front of Amma, I realize that I need someone to believe me.
I need Amma to believe me. If my friend doesn’t see the same Jules she’s always known—doesn’t see me for who I am—I think I’ll shatter. “Caro was the Queen’s lady-in-waiting,” I continue, fighting to keep my voice steady. “She killed the Queen and Roan and blamed me for it. Now everyone thinks I’m guilty.” I almost say, Everyone except Liam Gerling, but I stop myself. Amma blinks and then closes the shed door behind her. My heart skips a beat as her lantern throws flickering shadows over the shed walls. “Why?” she whispers, her face pale. “Why would the Queen’s lady-in-waiting kill Roan?” My eyes burn suddenly, fiercely.
“I don’t know,” I lie, swallowing down the tears that threaten to spill over. “They say she has the ear of Lady Gold. Maybe Caro thinks she’ll be more powerful with Ina as queen.” I desperately want this statement—this partial truth—to be enough. For the line between Amma’s brows to disappear, and for the tension in her shoulders to slide away. But as the crease and tension remain, I realize how foolish that hope is. Amma has always been able to tell when I’m lying, ever since we were girls and my lies were about things like spilled soup and broken dolls. “They’re saying you’re a witch. That only a witch could kill someone as powerful as Sempera’s queen.” Amma’s voice is small.
My stomach sinks with dread at the idea of telling her the truth: I’m the ancient Alchemist, the wicked Alchemist, reborn. I brace myself, inhaling deeply. “Do you remember the stories I used to tell? About foxes and snakes?” Amma’s eyes flicker. “I suppose so.” More to buy myself time than anything else, I reach into my bag. Amma starts a little and tracks my movements with her eyes. I ignore the small stab of pain this gives me. In slow, steady movements, I take out the leather-bound journal that I stole from the vault at Everless. The book that I remember from my childhood, left behind when Papa and I fled the Gerling estate, filled with stories and drawings that I first thought to be just the ramblings of a little girl. Until Papa died trying to retrieve it, in the hopes of keeping the information within safe—keeping me safe—from the Sorceress, my oldest enemy.
It seems to warm my hands now, brimming with secret knowledge—and more than that, a link to the castle that holds so many of my memories within its walls. You were right, Papa. I was in danger, I think sadly, holding the journal out in the space between Amma and me. He thought the Queen was the threat. But the real Sorceress was waiting, watching from the shadows all the while. I befriended her, just another servant girl. I revealed my secret to her before I even knew it myself. Fox and snake. Sorceress and Alchemist. Amma lifts her lantern to see the journal, and her mouth flattens.
But she takes a cautious step forward and opens it with one hand, holding the lamp close with the other. “Your stories,” she murmurs, turning a few pages. Then looks up at me. Concern and suspicion chase each other across that face that I know so well. “You wrote them down? What is this, Jules?” “They aren’t just stories. They’re a key. A key to things I’ve forgotten.” Nervousness dries out my tongue. “The snake . that’s what I called myself.
And the fox, that’s Caro.” Amma’s eyes flick up to me. “The girl who killed the Queen.” “We were friends a long time ago, before I met you. At least I thought we were friends.” “You mean, when you and your papa lived at Everless?” Something shimmers in Amma’s eyes—the look of the little girl who would beg me for every scrap of detail I could remember about the Gerling estate, who would let tales of lords and ladies carry her away. “Sort of.” I take a shuddering breath. “Amma, I learned something about myself when I returned to Everless. It’s going to sound mad when I tell you, but please just listen.
And then after, I’ll leave. If you want me to.” But please let me stay, I add silently. I’ve lost so much in the past weeks—Papa, my home, my friends, even Everless, the place I both hate and love. I can’t lose Amma too. Liam Gerling flits across my mind again, the complete belief in his eyes when he stood in an open field and told me I was the Alchemist. I wish he were beside me, if only to show Amma that I’m not mad. Not yet. “Do you believe in the Sorceress?” I ask.