THE WRAITH CREPT through the darkness of its forest prison, hunger gnawing at its bones. It was skeletal now, brushing against the thorn ferns and moss-covered tree bark with bony fingers that rattled in the breeze. Once, its strength had been unrivaled. Its magic unmatched. Until its sister had joined forces with others against it. Now the wraith haunted the vast, damp darkness of its cage, a shadow bound by a spell it couldn’t break no matter how hard it tried. The thought of vengeance was the meat and marrow of its dreams. It was the strength that bound its bones together and the breath that filled its lungs. Some days, memories of the ones who had trapped it blazed to life, leaving behind the scorched bitterness of shackled rage. But most days, it could feel only hunger. As the gray-black light within the forest sank into the total darkness of yet another night, the wraith stalked the edges of the vast prison, hurling itself against the invisible spell that bound it here, feeling the magic spark, blister, and burn. One day, it would break free. It would rush over the hills and move through the long stretches of farmland that stood between it and the city. It would find its sister and those who had helped her hunt it down, and it would destroy them all. And then it would feed and feed and feed, and there would be no one left to stop it.
Hunger stabbed. The wraith dug its fingers into the closest tree trunk, gathered its magic, and shrieked, a long, razor-tipped wail that shivered through the air, sending birds screaming for the skies as the sound winged its way across the distance between the wraith and the city that sheltered its enemies. The iron bells that hung along the road to warn people when a fae monster was near clanged wildly. The wraith lifted its face as their discordant, chaotic melody reached its ears, and smiled. ONE MORNINGS WERE A curse. Bernadina “Blue” de la Cour yawned and blinked at the golden sunlight that bathed the streets of Falaise de la Mer, the capital city of Balavata. People bustled along the wide main roads that cut through the large city like swaths of ribbon, hurrying toward the open-air market that was held once a week in the heart of town. Others moved along the warren of side streets that curled away from the main roads and burrowed through each of the city’s nine quarters. Everyone seemed cheerful. Or if not cheerful, at least fully awake.
Blue didn’t know what it took to wake at dawn and be cheerful about it, but whatever it was, she didn’t have it. “Isn’t this a beautiful morning?” Papa asked as they moved through the iron arches that marked the entrance to the Gaillard quarter and headed for their alchemy shop. The arches were meant to weaken anyone with fae magic in their blood, but they’d never affected Blue. Maybe it was because the magic in her blood was harmless. Or maybe it was because the royal council was wrong about iron arches doing a single thing to protect the people from the kind of fae magic that wasn’t harmless. Blue shrugged away her thoughts and took a sip of the hot spiced chicory Papa had made for her before they’d left their farmhouse on the outskirts of the city. The drink tasted of bitter chicory root, sweet cream, and nutmeg, and it almost made up for the fact that the sea fog was still clinging to the edges of the city. Nothing good came from getting out of bed before the sun had chased the fog away. Actually, nothing good came from getting out of bed before the noonday meal, but in seventeen years of trying, Blue had yet to convince Papa of that. Papa slung an arm around her shoulder and laid his cheek against the pink headscarf Blue had hastily wrapped around her short black curls.
“Almost awake?” he asked, laughter sparkling in his voice. She grunted and took another sip as they reached the corner where he would turn left to open up the shop and she would turn right to join those moving toward the large square where the market was held. “It’s only one day a week that you have to get up at dawn,” Papa said, his smile a wide slash of white against his light brown skin. “Need any help at the market today?” Blue yawned again. “I’ll be fine. Ana is meeting me there to help carry my purchases to the shop.” She hefted the burlap sacks she’d tossed over her shoulder before leaving the farmhouse, though she knew as well as Papa that she’d carry most of them herself. Hiring little ten-year-old Ana, one of Falaise de la Mer’s many homeless, as a delivery girl had been more a decision of the heart than of practicality. Papa nodded and reached for her nearly empty cup, the smile disappearing from his face. “Be careful.
Don’t let anyone catch you using your magic to check the goods before you buy them. Remember—” “No one will believe I’m harmless, no matter what I say. I know.” She finished his oft-repeated warning for him and leaned up to plant a kiss on his cheek. His skin was thinner now, sagging at the edges as strands of silvery gray worked their way into his close-cut black hair. There were laugh lines fanning out from his brown eyes, and sometimes when he thought she wasn’t watching, he leaned heavily against the shop’s counter at the end of the day as if being on his feet for hours on end was wearing on him. He returned her kiss and then studied her face with a smile. “You remind me of your mother. She was always the most intriguing woman in any room. And she didn’t like to take my warnings about her magic seriously either.
” “I’ll be careful. I promise.” She couldn’t find herself in his face—she had her mother’s dark brown skin and eyes, Grandmère’s pointed chin and sharp cheekbones, and the tiny stature of her mother’s side of the family. In fact, the only proof Blue could find that she shared blood with her father, who was the son of a tall, dark-skinned man and a woman with the pale skin and smooth hair of her Morcantian ancestors, were the curls that lifted from Blue’s scalp and framed her face. But she didn’t need to see herself in his face to feel every inch his daughter. They shared the same affection for the alchemy shop. The same passion for helping others. And the same love for a simple, uncomplicated life at their farmhouse, their garden, and the sea that bordered the cliff at the edge of their property. Turning, Blue made her way toward the market. Falaise de la Mer was a busy port city that attracted people from Balavata and several of the surrounding kingdoms.
But no matter how many moved into the city, the heart of Balavatan culture remained a celebration of food, artistry, and a fierce will to survive. Along the broad sides of buildings and homes, colorful pictures made from paint mixed with sand told the stories of Balavata—from the festivals to honor their folk heroes to the rise of the head families to the sea with its changing moods and constant bounty. The history of her kingdom surrounded Blue as she ducked through crowds, grumpily eyeing those who seemed wide awake and thrilled about it. When she neared the eastern edge of the quarter, she cast a quick glance at the Gaillards’ pale blue mansion. As one of the kingdom’s nine head families, the Gaillards had coin to spare. Blue supposed they spent a fair amount of it on managing their quarter and the southern villages assigned to them—they answered to the queen for the safety, economy, and upkeep of their portion of the kingdom —but anyone who owned five carriages for a family of three could certainly afford to use some of their wealth to help the destitute who huddled in the city’s back alleys, begging for food and taking jobs no one else wanted just to survive. Blue had long since stopped hoping the head families would do right by those who needed them most. Instead, she’d taken matters into her own hands. And today would be a test to see how close she was to succeeding. Thrusting her hands into the inner pocket of her light summer cloak, she brushed her fingers against the cold chunks of pale yellow metal she’d created after staying late at the shop the night before.
It had taken Blue far too long to realize that help for the children who slept in alleyways and foraged through trash in her quarter wasn’t coming from the magistrate, the Gaillards, or even the queen. Once she’d accepted that if she wanted to solve the problem, she was going to have to do it herself, the answer had seemed obvious: she’d use her talent for alchemy to turn ordinary metal into gold. Ten months later, after more failed experiments than Blue cared to count, she was close. Maybe even close enough to count it a success. She’d know soon enough, and once she could produce gold, she would buy a big home, hire tutors and provide fresh food, and gather up every child she could find so that they could finally do more than just survive. She reached the northern edge of the quarter and followed a crowd through the gate that led to the market. The square was divided into twenty rows of stalls with small seating areas at the end of each for those who’d just purchased crisp gelleire fish or a platter of fried apple cakes, a Balavatan staple. The center of the square was dominated by a large raised stage, surrounded by benches. Some days traveling theatrical troupes put on shows or brokers auctioned off exotic creatures procured from faroff kingdoms. Other days, magistrates from each quarter brought a prisoner or two up on stage for public punishment, depending on their crime.
Blue looked toward the stage and winced as she entered the field. Nine flags—each with the crest of one of Balavata’s head families—hung from the scaffolding. It was a magistrate day. Last time, she’d accidentally seen a woman get whipped for the crime of stealing silver dishes from her employer. She’d rather not see anything like that again. Turning away, Blue hurried down the ninth row of stalls toward one of her regular vendors, passing brightly patterned dresses with seashells embroidered along their hems, glittering beaded jewelry, freshly baked bread, and a stall featuring boots from the best cobbler in the city. There was another woman already talking with Maurice when Blue got to his stall, her voice rising as she debated something with the old merchant. Ignoring them, Blue moved to the back of the stall to examine the crates of seeds, bark, roots, and dried berries that Maurice regularly procured from the fae isle of Llorenyae. Casting a quick look over her shoulder to be sure no one was watching, Blue let her hands rest on a crate of yaeringlei seeds, feeling the gentle rush of the small magic she’d inherited from her mother tingle across her palms, seeking a connection with any natural thing—plant, animal, or mineral. If they’d been harvested correctly, the large, pebble-size seeds would leap toward her magic, eager to be used.
If the fruit that encased them had been forced from their bushes before they were ripe, the seeds would lie dormant, refusing her advances. The crate’s wood was rough, and bits of it curled toward Blue’s hands as if eager to be used in her potions. She shot another look at Maurice and his customer, but they were engrossed in their discussion. The seeds within the crate leaped for her hands, tapping against their wooden home like bits of hail against a window. Maurice’s gaze jerked toward her, a frown digging into the sagging skin between his eyes. Blue stepped away from the crate and shoved her hands into her cloak pockets, a chill racing over her skin as the woman turned to face her, pale skin flushed with anger at Maurice. She’d seen this woman a few times at the market or when Blue and Papa spent time at the castle, and Blue had no interest in catching her attention now. Dinah Chauveau, head of the Chauveau family, had a reputation for ruthlessly running her quarter and for making life miserable for anyone who tried to cheat her. She also had a reputation for zealously punishing anyone caught violating the law against magic. Swallowing hard, Blue gave Maurice and Dinah a wobbly smile and hurried toward a selection of jewels resting inside a locked glass case.
Her breath felt too thin, her blood too thick as she turned her back to them and prayed they hadn’t seen anything that could get her in trouble. “We can resume our discussion of your failure to meet the terms of our contract once you get her out of here.” Dinah’s voice was cold and precise. “What can I get for you today, Blue?” Maurice asked from beside her elbow. His brown face was folded in on itself, like a grape shriveling beneath the harsh summer sun, and his hands shook a bit with age, but his eyes were as shrewd as ever. “Pink sapphire!” Blue’s words were too loud, too rushed, and she folded her arms over her chest to give her hands something to do as magic tingled across her palms, reaching for the jewels that Maurice was pulling out of the case. “I don’t have pink today, but here’s a blue and a white, and both are just as lovely,” he said. Blue shook her head. “I need pink for the potion I’m working on.” “I can get my hands on one soon enough and have it delivered, no extra fee.
” “That’s fine.” Blue turned toward the crates and began rattling off the list of other items she needed, an itch between her shoulder blades where Dinah’s gaze rested. Blue hadn’t had a chance to check the rest of the ingredients she wanted to buy, but there was no way she could risk it now. Maurice quickly wrapped up her purchases and loaded them into her burlap sacks. “Where’s that young girl you use for deliveries and such?” Blue frowned as she reached inside her cloak for the metal she hoped would pass as gold. “I’m not sure.” Ana should’ve been here by now. She was usually very prompt, and she knew Blue needed help on market day. “If you can’t carry all these yourself, I’ll deliver the rest later for a small fee.” Maurice’s eyes brightened, and Blue laughed.
“I’ve experienced your small fees before, Maurice. I can carry it all or find a child to help me.” Schooling her face into a mask of composure, Blue pulled out the chunks of pale yellow metal she’d created the night before. It was almost gold. And maybe almost would be good enough. She didn’t want to cheat Maurice. She just wanted to test her experiment. And if anyone in the market could instantly spot a fake, it would be Maurice. His eyes narrowed as she handed him the chunks of almost-gold. “Pretty pale for gold.
” He held it up to a bar of sunlight slanting in through the roof and turned it this way and that. Blue flinched as Dinah took a step closer, her gaze on the metal as well. Maurice brought the metal up to his mouth and bit gently. His brow folded into a frown. “Soft like gold, but the color’s a little off. Where did you get this?” Her face heated. “The shop.” It was as much of the truth as she was willing to give them. If anyone realized what she was doing, she and Papa would no longer be safe. Blue would bet everything they owned that one of the less scrupulous brokers who managed the illegal gambling dens throughout the city would be at their door within an hour with a plan to force Blue into working for him.
And if a broker didn’t get to her first, somebody else would. Everyone in the kingdom would want a piece of the girl who’d figured out how to use alchemy to turn ordinary metal into gold. Maurice’s voice was rough. “Somebody cheated you, Miss Blue. This is a good imitation, but it isn’t gold. Do you remember who paid with it?” She shook her head and hurriedly grabbed a handful of coin out of her other pocket. Laying the coin out on Maurice’s table, she took the almost gold out of his hand and pocketed it again. “That’s useless, Miss Blue,” he said. “Unless you want to turn it over to the magistrate so they can hunt for the person who gave it to you.” “Oh, no.
That’s fine! I mean, obviously it’s not fine, but I’m sure I can use it in one of my potions or something.” Her voice was too bright, but she couldn’t seem to change it. Gathering her bags from Maurice, she slung them over her shoulder, staggering a bit under their weight, and then bid a hasty farewell to Maurice, nodding respectfully to Dinah on her way out. Scanning the crowd around her once more, Blue hurried to the end of the row. Where was Ana? Had she forgotten it was market day? Or had another, more lucrative job come up? A tiny whisper of fear poisoned Blue’s thoughts as she stopped to examine the crowd again. Children went missing in Falaise de la Mer. Everyone knew it, though no one could really explain it. It was always the children whose parents were in prison or who’d died working dangerous jobs for one of Balavata’s brokers. Children no one would really miss. But Ana wasn’t a girl no one would miss.
She had a regular job with Blue at the Mortar & Pestle. She had friends. And to the best of Blue’s knowledge, no one had gone missing from the Gaillard quarter for years. Besides, Ana had failed to show up twice before, and both times she’d returned after a few days, apologizing for leaving Blue on her own and explaining that she’d been hired for a cleaning job by one of the wealthier families of the city, who paid Ana twice what Blue could. A shout broke through Blue’s thoughts, and the crowd around her surged toward the stage, carrying her with it. “The laws of our land have been broken. The queen wishes you to bear witness!” a man’s voice boomed from the center of the stage. Blue dug her heels into the soft ground to avoid being pushed past the first row of benches as guards from each quarter brought prisoners onto the stage to have their crimes read aloud and their punishments delivered. “Up first, we have Selina Bisset, who has been accused of breaking the law against using magic.” People around Blue murmured and shot fearful looks at the stage, where a woman stood facing the crowd, her hands tied behind her back.
Blue was too far away to see the expression on the woman’s face, and she didn’t want to. “According to the law, no person shall use fae magic in any form.” The man held a scroll in his hands, his eyes scraping over it as he read. “No magic may be used for healing, for spells, for altering the physical appearance of objects or people, for divining the future, or for affecting anything that lives on the land, the sea, or the air. It was the use of fae magic that turned the witch Marielle into a blood wraith who drank the blood of our children and terrorized the streets of Falaise de la Mer.” Actually, it was the misuse of fae magic that had created the blood wraith, but Blue knew no one was interested in the nuances. Not when most of them remembered the wraith haunting their streets, destroying lives in its unending quest for power. She took a few steps backward before running into a solid wall of bodies standing close behind her. The crowd murmured louder, and Blue caught many of them saying the name Marielle like a curse. The man onstage turned toward the woman.
“You were seen using fae magic to transform rotten fruit into fresh in an attempt to deceive your customers. Do you deny the charge?” Blue closed her eyes. There was no point in denying the charge. The magistrate wouldn’t have brought the woman here if he didn’t have at least three sworn witnesses. Blue’s hands burned as if her own magic was reaching for the woman on the stage, and she clenched her fists and tried to take another step back. Whatever the woman said in reply was lost as the crowd began chanting, “Death to witches!” Not everyone who had fae magic was a witch, either, but that was another nuance no one who remembered the blood wraith wanted to discuss. “According to the law of Balavata, under the blessing of our gracious queen, I hereby sentence you to death,” the man shouted. Blue’s stomach lurched, and she turned and fought her way through the crowd as the guard next to the accused woman drew his sword from its sheath with a metallic hiss and plunged it through her chest.