Prologue - Winter
“Imuru,” she whispered, her shaking hand touching the cold iron ring. The light did not come.
“Imuru,” she said, louder, but the word was buried in phlegm, thickened by the copper tang of blood on her tongue. She reached up with her other hand, fighting past the painful spasms in her shoulder. The blood that ran down the length of her wounded arm had turned sticky and cold. Trembling fingertips brushed across the rough stone of her cell wall until they too found the ring where it hung. She felt the ancient runes etched into its face, felt the thick steel nail that held it up. Both hands gripped the ring hard.
“Imuru.” And still nothing. The magic was dead.
The wall shook again, forcing her to clutch the ring lest her weakened knees fail. Dirt and dust rained from the ceiling, but she could not see any of it. The spattering sound made by falling grime sent goose bumps across her arms. She did not know what was happening, did not know what might make a fortress tremble.
My head is bleeding, she realized. A heavy wetness weighed her hair down, matting it to the back of her neck. Her skull ached abominably, and the left side of her face felt numb.
And my arm... how did I injure my arm?
There had been a gathering with the other students in the Proving Hall, she dimly recalled. She had been nervous about something--a task, or a test looming before her. Someone had called her name; she had stood immediately, pretending composure, forcing her nerves to calm, eager to prove—
She could not remember what she was supposed to prove. She could not even remember if today was in fact today. Memories that should have been fresh in her mind were indistinct, hazy, while other, older ghosts swirled up with odd clarity. A woman’s weeping face recalled the day she had been torn from her mother’s arms.
“She has the mark,” her mother had sobbed, begging. “See her hair. See her skin. She was foretold. She is for the village, for the valley.”
The man who took her said, “She is for the Blackstone now.”
They stole the girl she had once been. They ripped her from her world of wind and trees and sunlight, and thrust her down, down into the dark. It had been three years since she had last seen her mother’s face, three years of ceaseless night. The first year had been the hardest. The first day had felt like death.
The intervening time between then and now had shown her much about the dark, however. She was taught how darkness could be a friend and ally to those who knew it, how it could be used to her advantage. There were times she was thankful for the dark--times she even liked it.
But she had always had the illumination ring. The magic had always worked as the Master said it would. “Imuru to bring light; Etu to negate it.” Only the softest touch of a hand was needed to accompany the words.
Always, until today.
She took a deep breath, trying to force calm--inner stillness--as her training commanded. The Master had mandated they must control their fears. He had prepared her for darkness and pain. Focus past it, she told herself. Pretending bravery would avail her nothing here. This was no test.
The floor and walls had stilled. All was quiet. She adjusted her grip on the ring and considered moving to the front of her cell. The door and its high window would be closed and locked, but the window had bars she could grab and hold on to. She could call for help. Someone might hear her, come for her; someone might let her out of her crumbling room.
But a primal part of her was loath to release her grasp on the ring. The silence around her was disquieting. Where were the voices of the other students? Where were the shouts, the hoarse throats crying out, as frightened as she felt? The adjoining cells were all silent, as was the hallway beyond her door. Surely there should have been the sound of running guards--of pounding boots and ringing armor and shouted commands.
The blood on her neck was slowly trickling down her back. Pip. A drop fell to the stone floor as she shifted her feet. Pip, pip...
The cold on her skin grew colder. She resolved not to die at the back of her cell clutching a useless piece of iron. She steeled herself, released the ring, and took three tentative steps out into the black.
The darkness closed in around her, primitive and menacing, squeezing her chest and stealing her breath.
It is like the dark of my walking dreams, she thought, though she knew this was no walking dream. There was never any pain in those.
Two more steps and she almost fell, dizzy in the dark. Her head throbbed. She could no longer feel her arm. The fear that she could be dying became very real; her injuries were as bad as any she had ever had--even worse than the ones she’d gotten that first terrible day.
“Everyone fights,” the Master had told the children. She had not known what he meant back then. No one knew. But they all found out.
Another tentative step was taken. Her one good hand reached out before her in the dark. She knew the door was near.
A quick slant of light appeared, flickering beneath the door. Her heart jumped.
“Hello!” she called out, her voice raspy. “I’m hurt. I... I need help. Please, can you help?”
Silence answered her.
Stumbling through the blackness, she reached the door and fell against it--the metal cold and solid and familiar. She placed her lips to the crack, where aged iron met stone. She could smell the blood on her breath as it washed across rust.
“Please,” she said again, softer. “Please. I’m bleeding.”
She heard a soft krik outside of her cell door--the subtle crunch of a stone underfoot.
She asked, quieter, “Domiév?” It was irrational to hope it was him, but that did not make her wish it any less.
Something slammed into the door, the jolt of impacted metal jarring her cheek. Another fresh lance of pain bloomed in her skull. She stumbled back, tripping over her feet, and fell, hard onto the stone floor.
Jangling keys clattered against the door, rattling across the keyhole before she heard the familiar click-clack of the turning lock. The iron door was pulled open, its hinges squealing, and a tall armored man entered her cell. He was hunched over, breathing heavily, a torch and a ring of keys in one hand. The other hand quickly pulled the door closed behind him. The bright torchlight made her shield her eyes, but she already knew who it was.
“Gangly Shanks” they called him, though she believed his real name was Duris. Students were not allowed to call the Blackstone guards by their names; protocol demanded each should be addressed as “Guard.” But most of the students secretly identified the guards by the nicknames they had given them over the years. There was Stumble Foot, and Nine Fingers, and Parrot, and Bear Beard; there was the Beater, the Nap-Taker, the Whistler, and the Cougher, and more. Some of the students mocked them behind their backs. She didn’t.
Gangly Shanks was tall and thin, with a large hooked nose and a protruding Adam’s apple. For armor he favored an oversized iron-studded leather cuirass, which hung loose and heavy from stooped shoulders. With thinning hair, bulging eyes, and a wart on his cheek, Gangly Shanks was one of the ugliest guards in the Blackstone--but he was also one of the nicer ones. He might tell a joke or two when the others were not around. He would smile and laugh more than most. He almost never used his cudgel.
And he was especially kind to her. He knew her given name, and used it when he escorted her alone, even though it was forbidden. She once confided to him that she was fond of plums, so he would sometimes slip one into her dinner when no one else was looking. “For ya, Bai,” he would say quietly, adding a wink on rare occasions.
I am Bai, she remembered with a start.
It was a name so rarely used, it sounded strange even in her head. They all called her something else these days... but now she held onto the memory of her name stubbornly.
I am still Bai, daughter of Jin’su. I am Bai of the Nabi, Bai of the Blue Valley.
A crumbling keep could never change that. Smiling guards could not make her forget.
Gangly Shanks was not smiling now. He was sweating, breathing hard, eyes wide and darting. Drops of blood dotted his face like freckles, and more blood seeped out from under his armor, running down his left leg, staining his breeches. He dropped his torch while fumbling with the key ring, trying to switch it from one hand to the other. He didn’t bother picking the torch back up; he let it burn on the floor.
Gangly Shanks turned to the door and made an attempt to lock it--before remembering the cells only locked from the outside. He grunted in frustration.
“Duris,” Bai called out weakly, hopefully, “please, can you help me?” She held one pleading hand up to him; sticky blood smeared the stone floor beneath her other.
“To yer bed,” he ordered with an angry snarl. Students were supposed to retreat to their beds immediately when guards entered their cells. Gangly Shanks did not seem to care about her injuries, nor did he wait for her to move to her bed. He limped past her, heading for the near wall, though he nearly tripped on one of her garments--a standard gray tugo--that the shaking cell had strewn across the floor.
The sight of one tugo reminded her of the other, forcing a dreaded glance down at her injured arm. The sleeve of her garment was completely gone, frayed at the shoulder, burnt away. Her skin beneath was streaked with blood and blistered--reddened in places and blackened in others. It should have been pale as milk.
I was burned? she thought numbly. It was still so hard to recall. Seeing her ghastly arm brought the pain back with a vengeance, but it was somehow more painful to see her ruined garment; the special tugo had always reminded her, however distantly, of the beautiful snow-silk hamok her mother had presented her on her twelfth naming-day. The Blackstone tugo had been made especially for her, fashioned from soft white cotton, tailored with elongated sleeves and a wider hem. It was one of the few items she had earned as a merit, and was as close a thing to a prized possession as she had. Bai rarely earned merits; even her side windows had been sealed up.
Gangly Shanks was struggling with the small wooden desk that was, apart from her bed, the only furniture the room would allow. He had shoved aside the desk’s chair and was dragging the desk back to the door in an attempt to bar it. Bai rose unsteadily to her feet and moved out of his way, backing against the far wall, watching him in silence, wary. Surely he would realize that he could not bar an outward-swinging door from the inside.
He finally did. Gangly Shanks stopped struggling with the desk and made a frustrated, gurgling noise in the back of his throat. It might have been comical had he not seemed on the verge of insanity. “Fet!” he cursed. He ran a shaking hand through his thinning hair, pulling on it. He looked lost.
“Sir, help me. Please. Take me out of here.” Bai spoke carefully, ensuring each word was clear. Her accent had not been buried by three years, and it was thicker when she was afraid. “Can you help me? We--we can help each other.” She wasn’t sure he would believe she was in any condition to help anyone. But surely he would take pity on her. He had cared about her before. They had developed a friendship, at least. Couldn’t he tell how hurt she was?
“Help you?” he asked, eyes bulging. His jaw quivered and his fists clenched. “I should bloody kill you.”
She just stared at him. She could not back against the wall any more than she already was.
“You started this whole fetid mess,” he accused, his anger growing. “There was no control. The rules... worthless. Less’n nothing. Chaos. The others thought they were protectin’ you.”
“I--I do not remember--”
It was finally coming back. She remembered facing off against a demon of a girl. She does not like me at all, she recalled thinking. And she has fire. She would have to finish her quickly.
Something had struck her in the back of the head before she could--
“‘Course you don’t remember,” Gangly Shanks snarled. “You was already twitchin’ in the sand.”
She had thrown her hand up to ward off the vortex of fire that had been flung at her face. The flames twisted and spun, alive. The sound was akin to a low, breathy roar.
“You can’t stop fire with your hand, silly,” someone had once told her, giggling.
My face. She remembered only white-hot agony. The left side of her face was still completely numb. Did she burn my face?
“An’ now see,” Gangly Shanks said, accusatory. “See what that’s done. Escape might not’a been on yer mind, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t yer fault.”
“Escape,” she whispered in echo. The word felt foreign on her tongue.
“Picked the wrong bloody time for that.” Gangly Shanks spat and glanced at the door, nervously, then down at the wound in his side. He touched it and winced.
We are escaping. The thought stunned her. We are the ones doing this. We are making the guards bleed. Her heart skipped a beat.
We are shaking the walls. We are stifling the magic.
This is us.
He was watching her oddly. Something in her eyes must have changed. Something in his eyes did too. She recognized fear all too well.
Gangly Shanks came at her in one lurching rush, his hands going for her throat. He needed only three long steps to cross the eight paces between them.
Instinct took only half a heartbeat in time. She channeled her gift.
Winter. They all called her Winter now. That is who I am here.
She froze his eyes. She took the wetness, the tears, the soft fleshy pulp... and before either of them could blink she turned it all to ice. They made little popping sounds as the tissue rapidly expanded in the sockets. Blood welled and immediately hardened, lines of red veining beneath the surface, red rivers under a frozen lake.
Gangly Shanks let out a choked cry, his hands missing her throat and impacting the wall behind her. One of his fingers bent sideways at the knuckle and snapped. His scream sounded strangled.
Winter circled around behind him. The use of her blood gift had numbed the pain of her wounded shoulder, had cleared her head. There was no more cold, though the room’s temperature had just dropped significantly. She felt alive; she always did when she used her gift. The pain would return later--worse than before. All the bloodline students accepted that. They had no choice.
Gangly Shanks scrambled away from the wall, breaths coming in quickened puffs of white. His head jerked to and fro, but his frozen eyes could see nothing. His hands swiped the air, desperate to locate her.
“Do not,” she warned, and realized her mistake.
He rushed to the sound of her voice, and this time his hands did not miss. His momentum put her hard against the wall. The back of her head bounced on stone. He lifted her by the neck to strangle her.
She did not feel it--did not feel anything when she channeled. There was only a vague awareness of his hands tightening around her throat. She stared defiantly back into his gruesome, glassy eyes. He stank of days-old sweat and boiled leather and blood and terror.
The last warning she might have given him would have come far too late, had she the breath to speak. The room temperature was plummeting. It was so cold the torch was nearly guttered out; the room was almost dark again.
She did not need to see the wall behind her to know it was crawling with frost, webbing the black stone with thin lines of white, spreading outward in a slow and inexorable wave. The crackling sounds that snapped the air told her that. Gangly Shanks’ wheezing struggle for breath told her that.
People said her eyes would glow the softest blue when she called her gift. This was the first time she saw it, reflected in the guard’s frozen eyes. It was pretty. It made her sad.
“She is for the village, for the valley.”
Her mother had been wrong. Hers was no gift for anyone but Death.
Gangly Shanks fell away from her, mouth wide open. A fist-sized mass of frozen blood and saliva forced his jaws apart. He looked like a fish. When he impacted the stone his bones cracked, and ice shards scattered across the floor.
Already the rush she had felt was fading, and with its exit came the inevitable return of pain. She stumbled toward her bed on instinct, though she knew she should be going out the door instead.
Escaping. We are escaping.
She was one step away from the bed when the whole room suddenly shook again, harder than it ever had before. This time there was no illumination ring nearby to grab; Winter was flung to her knees and then thrown to the wall. She clutched at the floor, even though she felt the blocks of stone shifting beneath her.
No! We are escaping, her mind protested. This is us!
There was a rumble of grinding stone above, followed by a sharp CRACK. Instinct made her look up, a half-heartbeat before the ceiling split in two and collapsed on top of her.
Winter lay dying. Her body was broken, twisted amidst the rubble that had once been her cell. Again she did not know how much time had passed--only that the pain was finally gone. Sweet oblivion was surely soon to follow.
She realized there was light only when a shadow passed before her eyes.
Winter gazed up at a woman she did not know--though she recognized the mask she wore, a veneer carved of polished ivory. Delicate runes were etched across its face, circled and spiraling across the brow, chin, and cheeks. The runes drew the eye and made everything around the mask seem blurred.
Is death a walking dream? she wondered. The mask always came in the darkest moments of her walking dreams. Perhaps she had been dreaming of death all this time.
“Child,” the masked woman said gently. “This is not the end for you.”
But I want it to end, Winter thought. She was so, so tired of this life.
“You will live,” the masked woman asserted, “though there will be pain. There is always pain. But I have come to take you from this place. You wished for freedom. I am here to grant it.”
Winter could not speak the questions she needed to ask. She did not need to.
“I am Ashmei,” the masked woman whispered in answer, close to her ear. “And you are Bai. You told me in a dream. My name is my gift to you. That and life.”
“Because we three are at war,” Ashmei murmured. “And in war, one needs weapons. He knew. In this there can be but one victor.”
“For love,” Ashmei said, though there was no love in her voice.
Bai’s last question was a selfish one.
“No,” Ashmei answered. “Some have refused me. They are beyond my reach. For them there can be only sorrow.”
Bai felt sorrow. Domiév. He was truly lost to her now.
The mask did not smile, and neither did Ashmei’s eyes.
“You will see many of them again, I promise. I told you today is not the end. Neither is it the beginning. Today is but the smallest point in time. You are a part of something much larger than you could have ever known.”
Ashmei touched Bai’s forehead with a fingertip, and even the mask began to blur.
“Time turns eternal, be it stone dial or clockwork steel, and it gives no pause but to a blessed few. Rejoice in your heart. Together we will sing this song complete.”
The dark of Bai’s dreams closed over her eyes.
“You are my dagger now.”