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Eight years of poison and murder and shit.
Eight years of blood and sweat and death.
She’d fallen so far, her little brother in her arms, fingers still sticky and red. The light of the three suns above, burning and blinding. The waters of the flooded arena below, crimson with blood. The mob howling, bewildered and outraged at the murders of their grand cardinal, their beloved consul, both at the hands of their revered champion. The greatest games in Godsgrave’s history had ended with the most audacious murders in the history of the entire Republic. The arena was in chaos. But through it all, the screams, the roars, the rage, Mia Corvere had known only triumph.
After eight years.
Eight fucking years.
I did it.
I killed them for you.
She’d hit the water hard, the sights and sounds of Godsgrave Arena swallowed up as she plunged beneath the surface. Salt burning in her eyes. Breath burning in her lungs. Crowd still roaring in her ears. Her little brother, Jonnen, was struggling, punching, wriggling in her arms like a landed fish. She could sense the serpentine shadows of stormdrakes, cruising toward her through the murk. Razor smiles and dead eyes.
Truelight was so bright, even here beneath the surface. But even with those three awful suns in the sky, even with all the outrage of the Everseeing pouring down, her own shadows were with her. Dark enough for four now. And Mia reached toward the outflow in the arena floor—the wide spout from which all that salt and water flowed and she
It left her dizzied and sick—she could still feel that blinding sunslight in the sky above. Mia sank like a stone in her armor, weighed down by black iron and sodden falcon’s wings. Pulling Jonnen down with her, she hit the bottom of the outflow pipe with a dull clunk. She had only moments, only the breath she’d brought with her. And she’d not planned to have a struggling child in her arms when she did this.
Dragging herself and the boy along the pipe, she found a pocket of air inside the pressure valve, just as Ashlinn had promised. Surfacing with a ragged gasp, she pulled her brother up beside her. The boy sputtered in her arms, wailing, struggling, flailing at her face.
“Unhand me, wench!” he cried.
“Stop it!” Mia gasped.
“Let me go!”
“Jonnen, stop it, please!”
She wrapped the boy up, pinning his arms so he couldn’t punch anymore. His cries echoed on the pipe above her head. Struggling with her armor’s clasps and straps with her free hand, she dragged the pieces away, one by one. Shedding the skin of the gladiatii, the assassin, the daughter of vengeance, sloughing those eight years off her bones. It’d been worth it. All of it. Duomo dead. Scaeva dead. And Jonnen, her blood, the babe she’d thought long buried in his grave …
My little brother lives.
The boy kicked, thrashed, bit. There were no tears for his murdered da, only fury, rippling and red. Mia had thought the boy dead years ago—swallowed up inside the Philosopher’s Stone with her mother and the last of her hope. But if she’d had any lingering doubts he could be a Corvere, that he could be her mother’s son, the boy’s bloody rage put them all to the sword.
“Jonnen, listen to me!”
“My name is Lucius!” he shrieked, his voice echoing on the iron.
“Lucius, then, listen!”
“I won’t!” he shouted. “You k-killed my father! You killed him!”
Pity swelled inside Mia, but she clenched her jaw, hardened her heart against it.
“I’m sorry, Jonnen. But your father…” She shook her head, breathed deep. “Listen, we need to get out of this pipe before they start draining the arena. The stormdrakes will come back this way, do you understand?”*
“Let them come, I hope they eat you!”
“… O, I LIKE HIM…”
“… why does that not surprise me…”
The boy turned to the dark shapes coalescing on the wall beside them, the air around them growing chill. A cat made of shadows and a wolf of the same, staring at him with their not-eyes. Mister Kindly’s tail twitched side to side as he studied the child. Eclipse simply tilted her head, shivering slightly. Jonnen fell silent for a moment, wide, dark eyes looking first to Mia’s passengers, then to the girl who held him.
“You hear them, too…,” he breathed.
“I’m like you,” Mia nodded. “We’re the same.”
The boy stared at her, perhaps feeling the same sickness, hunger, longing she did. Mia looked him over, tears welling in her eyes. All the miles, all the years …
“You don’t remember me,” she whispered, her voice shaking. “You were only a baby when they t-took you away from us. But I remember you.”
She was almost overcome for a moment. Tears in her lashes and a sob caught in her throat. Recalling the baby boy wrapped in swaddling on her mother’s bed the turn her father died. Staring up at her with his big, dark eyes. Envying him that he was too young to know their father had ended, and all their world besides.
But he wasn’t Jonnen’s father at all, was he?
Mia shook her head, blinked back those hateful tears.
O, Mother, how could you …
Looking at the boy now, she could barely speak. Barely force her jaw to move, her lungs to breathe, her lips to form the words burning in her chest. He had the same flint-black eyes as she, the same ink-black hair. She could see their mother in him so clearly, it was like peering into a looking glass. But beyond the her in him, something in the shape of Jonnen’s little nose, the line of his puppy-fat cheeks …
She could see him.
“My name is Mia,” she finally managed. “I’m your sister.”
“I have no sister,” the boy spat.
“Jonn—” Mia caught herself. Licked her lips and tasted salt. “Lucius, we have to go. I’ll explain everything, I swear it. But it’s dangerous here.”
“… ALL WILL BE WELL, CHILD…”
“… breathe easy…”
Mia watched as her daemons slipped into the boy’s shadow, eating away at his fear as they’d always done for her. But though the panic in his eyes lessened, the rage only swelled, the bunched muscles in his little arms suddenly flexing against hers. He wriggled and bucked again, slipping a hand free and clawing at her face.
“Let me go!” he cried.
Mia hissed as his thumb found her eye, whipping her head away with a snarl.
“Stop it!” she snapped, temper flaring.
“If you’ll not be still, I’ll hold you still!”
Mia pushed the boy hard against the pipe, pressing him in place as he kicked and spat. She could understand his rage, but in truth, she had no time to spend on hurt feelings right now. Working at the remaining buckles on her armor with her free hand, she slipped off the long leather straps that held her breastplate and spaulders in place, dropping the armor to the floor of the valve. She kept her boots, her studded leather skirt, the threadbare, bloodstained tunic beneath. And using the straps, one each for his wrists and ankles, she bound up her brother like a hog to slaughter.
Jonnen’s protests were muted as Mia tied another thong about his mouth. And gathering the boy into her arms, she held him tight, looked him hard in the eyes.
“We have to swim,” she said. “I’d not waste my breath on shouting if I were you.”
Dark eyes locked on hers, glittering with hate. But the boy seemed sensible enough to comply, finally dragging a deep draft into his lungs.
Mia pulled them below and swam for their lives.
Copyright © 2019 by Neverafter PTY LTD.