- Author: Naomi Hughes
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Copyright © 2020 Naomi Hughes
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Cover art by: Amelia Buff
Interior design by: Lorie DeWorken, MindtheMargins.com
without whom both I and this story
would be incalculably lesser.
BONUS SHORT STORY: The Rose Witch
he Unforged God looked out upon the emptiness of the universe and was displeased. Desiring a new creation, he tore himself into pieces: copper, silver, gold, iron, platinum, and all the other metals. With these pieces, the world was created. Into some of the men and women who rose up were planted the seeds of divinity: metal flowing through their blood, lending them one of the divine magics and a special connection to the Unforged God. These people, God named Smiths.
—HALLOWED REVELATIONS OF SAINT YVETTA, THIRD REFRAIN
ONCE, THERE WAS A BOY WHO BELIEVED.
He’d been having visions for a year. They showed him doing exactly what he was doing right now: walking up the docks toward the most dangerous girl in the Alloyed Empire, preparing to offer her his oath of service.
In the visions, his hands hadn’t been trembling. In the visions, he hadn’t seen the look on the girl’s face: gracefully curious brows, starlight-silver eyes, a predatory curve of lips. It was the face of a murderer. But he believed in his visions, believed what his god had promised through them, so he kept walking.
The gleaming Alloyed Palace rose before him in the moonlight. Made of plated scales, it looked like the skin of some monstrous, colorful snake perched above the tumbling river. The boy could feel the shimmer of the palace’s magic from here. He could pick out the scales that hummed in sync with the forbidden silver that ran through his own blood. Though he couldn’t sense any of the other metals, his keen eye picked out plates of copper, iron, nickel, tin, gold. All of them were enchanted, their natural magics Smithed by the metallurgists of the high courts to protect against invaders.
The boy stopped at the intersection of the docks and the palace’s great porch and looked again at the girl above him. At this distance, in this angle of moonlight, her smile no longer looked quite so predatory. It seemed tired instead, even strained, but those bright silver eyes were still locked on him like he was either her prey or her salvation. She was young, too. Maybe sixteen—his own age. He hadn’t expected that. In the whispered warnings, she was ageless.
He gripped his hands behind his back, standing at a loose attention the way he’d been taught. The dual short swords that were sheathed at the curve of his spine pressed against his forearms. Before he could lose his mettle, he spoke the words he’d heard a hundred times in his dreams. “I’ve come to swear my oath of protection to the Destroyer.”
His voice shook. That hadn’t happened in the visions either. He worried over what else his god might not have shown him about this moment.
The Destroyer looked down at him. She had been walking when he’d first started up from the royal docks. She had paused to watch him approach. Two imperial guards were at her back now, watching him just as closely.
“You’re frightened,” she observed, her voice low and lovely.
Terror gripped him, a noose around his throat. Why had the Unforged God asked this of him? Are you certain? he prayed silently. I will do anything for you, but are you certain?
His god didn’t answer. The boy summoned his faith, reminded himself of what the visions had promised. He would save the Destroyer. He would save the Alloyed Empire through her. He wasn’t sure how this moment could possibly lead to that one, but he believed anyway.
“Of course I am,” he answered her. This time, his voice didn’t shake.
They were silent for a long moment. The banners of the palace rippled around them: cobalt blue and rust red. The breeze lifted above the churning river and blew its fine mist over them, over the whole of the royal docks and the palace’s great porch where they stood, until everything was sparkling with it. Dewdrops hung suspended in the girl’s dark, curly hair and glistened on her black crown. She made no sound, giving him long moments to reconsider.
“I have the whole imperial guard to protect me,” she noted. Her voice was even, but he thought there might’ve been a note of curiosity in it.
He inhaled. He could taste the river on his tongue. The Entengre flowed underground through a copper mine in the mountains, and carried the acrid taste of old coins downstream. “They aren’t sworn to you, my lady. And technically they serve your sister the empress,” he forced himself to say the next phrase, “long may she live. You have no one who serves you alone.”
The girl didn’t move. She was so still that her mercurial eyes seemed to flicker like flames in the shadows. “And you want to swear to me directly?”
“I want to swear to you on metal,” he clarified.
That graceful brow rose higher. Behind her, the two imperial guards shifted and murmured. Swearing on metal was a rarity; that sort of oath could only be given willingly, and it could only be undone by either death or the fulfillment of its terms. Anyone who gave a metal oath could be trusted to deliver on whatever it was they had promised, because there was no other option.
“And what do you want in return?”