Chapter One excerpt

With the baby Prince in my arms I darted past the guards. Since I’d called upon speed I was a blur barely identifiable as human to them. But already I felt the magic weakening me.
      I slammed through a door at the end of the hall and up a flight of stairs, then another. In a gray stone passage I paused, let speed slip away, and cocked an ear. Nothing; for the moment I’d eluded the soldiers.
      This hall was lined with doorways; I hastily got through the nearest and kicked the door shut behind me.
      My hands were shaking. The baby looked a bit surprised by the abrupt changes in speed but wasn’t crying. What now? We were in a tidy room with a bed, no doubt guest quarters. I yanked the blanket and sheet from the bed, wrapped the infant in the sheet, and tied the corners together. Carrying the bundle, I went to a window and looked down. Since I’d stolen the Prince from the second-floor nursery, we were now on the fourth floor. Far below two guards stood, but their backs were to us and they seemed unaware of any disturbance in the palace.
      The window opened outward and was controlled by a hand crank. I held the baby over the edge, securely nestled (I hoped) in the sheet, and hooked its knotted corners over the crank. Outrageous way to treat an infant but no time for doubts; I had to hide him fast. “Do other girls’ mistresses make them do shit like this?” I muttered.
      I withdrew and shut the window halfway, as much as it would close with the cloth blocking the mechanism. A person glancing into the room wouldn’t see the Prince. I returned the blanket to the bed.
      Next…crap. I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes, seeing lurid nebulae, and tried to think of a way out of this. I recalled my mistress’s words from that morning: “Capture the child. Kill the King. He dared to invade the witchlands; his death must be public, brutal, and unmistakably done by a woman of witch power. You are a witch aspirant, Lilta; you will need no weapons. Do you understand?”
      She’d meant this was a test of my magic. “Yes,” I’d answered. “I am ready, mistress, and eager to begin.” I did not feel as bold as I acted. I’d killed once before, but that had been to save my own life. The prospect of killing again filled me with horror, but I dared not anger my mistress by disobeying her.
      Cries of “Witches!” and “The nursery!” came from lower floors. I’d brought a companion in this raid, and if my blazing around at speed hadn’t told them we were witches, her appearance had certainly done it, given her…condition. Too bad our disguises hadn’t held up, but the havoc she was causing elsewhere in the castle was a useful diversion.
      Since the Taxians were alerted to us I shed the skirt that was part of my disguise as a palace servant and kicked it under the bed. Small loss, since I’d had to tear it so I could run. It left me in a light blouse and a short slip that let my legs move.
      I stepped into the hall and looked around so I’d recognize this place when I returned. The palace was an accretion of centuries and its unplanned structure made it easy to get lost. The halls veered in odd directions and the floors abruptly rose or fell a few feet here and there, seemingly at random.
      I didn’t know where King Brath was. What would I do in the Taxians’ position? With witches after the royal family, I’d get them out of the palace as fast as possible. So if the King hadn’t already escaped, he was on the ground level, or would be soon.
      I ran back to the stairs and bolted down three flights to the ground floor. Near the base of the stairs was a door flanked by two soldiers; I hurtled toward them.
      “Hey!” one yelped, but that was all he could do before I called upon speed. I shot through the doorway and into a narrow windowless corridor. Once speed is fully upon me, I could pick a dust mote from your eye before you could blink, or blow at a candle’s flame and be across the room before my breath snuffed it out. My clothes, not affected by speed magic, rubbed annoyingly against my skin as I ran. From my accelerated perspective my footsteps boomed resoundingly on the floorboards. A torch set into the wall loosed a thread of smoke into the air; it seemed frozen, like a strand of wrought iron. Speed magic is taxing, but under the circumstances I had no choice.
      I hoped my companion was tending to her task. Her attention often wandered and it wouldn’t be surprising if she stopped to admire a painting on a wall.
      At the end of the corridor I glanced off a wall, wincing as I bruised my shoulder, and rounded a corner. The corridor widened here and the ceiling arced twenty feet up. Facing me were a dozen soldiers guarding double doors that reached to the ceiling. They were wearing the usual leather armor and a straying part of my mind noted a licorice smell coming from some substance they’d applied to it. Then it hit me: there was no reason to defend a chamber so well unless the King were within!
      I sidestepped the guards and got to the doors. Opening them slowed me—you can’t move an eighty-pound door in an instant, even at speed—and one shouted “Shit, a witch!” as he saw me. No matter; they wouldn’t have time to pose a threat.
      I got through the doorway and looked around. I was standing in the central aisle between pews of an enormous stone chapel. Thirty yards away, at the other end, attendants hurried a man toward an exit. He was wearing a powder blue tunic with a crest that rose from the shoulders and half-surrounded his head. That was King Brath, whom I’d caught at sext prayers. Closer to me a group of soldiers blocked the aisle, so I leapt onto the backs of the pews and sprinted forward.
      I came upon Brath’s party, pushed two attendants out of my way, and was face-to-face with him. He seemed frozen. Gray eyes looked out from a sun-leathered face. His eyes were a barrier, unreadable.
      Now was the time to strike.
      I couldn’t do it.
      He’d invaded our land, so we had the right to retaliate. But to kill a man—who had never harmed me—in cold blood?
      Holding speed was too draining; I let it slip away. The slowed sounds returned to normal pitch, resolving to shouts of confusion and officers’ hollered orders. The soldiers rushed forward.
      “Witch! Witch! To the King!”
      “Another one? Damn, how many are there?”
      They converged on us, swords drawn. “I can’t do it,” I blurted. Perhaps if I abducted Brath my mistress wouldn’t punish me too harshly. I shoved him, sending him sprawling into the wall, then leapt to the wall and scurried along it. This let me evade the onrushing defenders, but the climbing magic would only surprise them once. When I overtook the King, I jumped to the floor and caught his sleeve.
      “Let go of me!” he thundered and punched my mouth, making my head snap back. As I staggered, hot blood spreading on my tongue, he shouted, “Kill her!”
      What? I’d just spared him! His guards were closing again, and a thrown spear sliced into my calf, dropping me. “Oww, shit!”
      I lurched to my feet, for the first time a little scared. Fuck, how could I have been so sloppy?
      Still, I had witch strength. Soldiers surrounded me; one thrust a pike at my face and I yanked it from him. Another leapt onto my back and wrapped an arm around my neck. “Got her!” I grabbed the arm with my free hand, wrenched it away, and shouldered him off me. By happy accident he blundered into his closest comrades. “Just kill her, you simpletons!” one shouted.
      I swung the pike’s blunt end at the soldiers nearest me, making them jump away, and plowed through the hole in their line. This brought me back to the center aisle near the altar. Favoring my good leg, I stayed in motion, trying to keep them all on one side of me. If they surrounded me again…
      Luckily the pews restricted their maneuvering. One man got too close and I used the pike’s end to brain him with a revolting wet thud. As he dropped I swung it the other way and caught the next man on the side of his neck, felling him instantly.
      Swearing, the others pulled back. I flipped the pike so I was holding it the right way. “Yes, you morons, a witch really is tougher than a girl of the village.”
      But I had no more tricks. I was too spent to use speed, the magic that let me skitter across walls wouldn’t help me here in the middle of the room, and my strength would eventually be overwhelmed by their numbers. Desperately, I looked around for a way out…