“That’s it. Lift it a little higher, and you’ll be free,” Miara whispered to the raven.
“What are you doing?” The raven lifted the latch and burst through the cage door just as the Mistress arrived.
The truth would get her beaten, but as a slave, she couldn’t lie. So Miara said nothing. She watched silently as the raven circled up, heading toward a high window. If only it were that easy. Miara could change form and charm animals, summon plants and hear the thoughts of men. She could grow wings and take to the sky whenever she pleased. But at the edge of the hold’s lands, she’d be thrown back, kept forever a slave. She knew; she’d tried many times before. She’d looked for a hole, any chinks in her enchantment’s armor. There were none.
“I’ll just get another bird.” The Mistress rolled her eyes as she strode to the dais. “Don’t think I don’t notice your petty little rebellions. They accomplish nothing. Show her.” She jutted her chin at a guard by the door, who took a bow from his back, notched an arrow, and dropped the bird with one shot.
Miara winced and turned her eyes away. She could feel it was not quite dead yet, but healing it was probably one rebellion too many for the moment.
“You are equally expendable.” The older woman stopped and folded her arms across her chest, regarding Miara. Her dark hair fell in carefully styled soft curls on a blue velvet gown, the picture of a lady. Miara knew better. “I’ve summoned you because Dekana is dead,” the Mistress said. She paused for a moment to appreciate the color draining from Miara’s face. “Her tasks fall to you now.”
Miara’s throat tightened. Don’t let it show, she thought. Don’t let it. Dekana had been a spy for the Masters, just as Miara was. What had happened? And if Dekana had failed, why would they think that Miara could succeed? She was half the spy Dekana had been.
The Mistress took the mage-knots from the nearby table and approached, the rope of solid bronze catching the room’s faint firelight. She and the other Masters didn’t deserve such power, crafted by an air mage’s own hand sometime back in the Dark Days. Each time she saw them, she wondered if the poor bastard had been willing or coerced. It was either the greatest betrayal or the greatest tragedy her people had ever known.
“What happened to Dekana?” Miara asked as evenly as she could, as the Mistress yanked the neck of her tunic aside to expose the always-raw brand on her shoulder.
“That is none of your concern.” Her eyelid twitched. She did not want Miara to know, did she? “You need only think about the task at hand.” And with that, she pressed the cold bronze against the brand on Miara’s right shoulder.
Two decades ago, their brand had seared its pain into her shoulder for the first time, burning its curse into her flesh and leaving her with a compulsion to do their bidding. It could not heal. It festered away, changing from a fresh burn to a scab, from a gash to a welt. She could hardly remember a time without it. She had been only five when her mother had betrayed her and her father to the Devoted, whose knights had brought them here. Usually, she slept on her left side and tried not to think about it.
Each time they gave her a mission, though, her brand burned as hot as the very first time. Then pain shattered her thoughts, slicing along her collarbone, down her arm, across her back.
“Go to Akaria,” the Mistress said. Her voice was a thousand demons echoing inside Miara’s skull. “Find the mountain hold of Estun, where the monarchy of Akaria hides from our might. Find their oldest son, Prince Aven Lanuken. Kidnap him, and bring him back to us. Alive. Let no one know a mage or anyone from Kavanar is involved.”
The Mistress lifted the mage-knots away, and just like that, Miara’s agony was over.
Stars and yellow splotches danced before Miara’s eyes, and she swayed as though she might fall to the marble. No, she thought. No. She forced herself steady, to reach out with her mind for anything nearby to regain her strength. But with the raven gone, there was nothing alive in this hellish place, only cold marble blackness. An earth mage could have thrived here on the energy locked in the stone, but she was a creature mage. She needed living, breathing energies, and the Mistress and her guards were sadly off-limits. Another breath, and thankfully, the stars faded. Another, and she felt like herself again.
The Mistress had seated herself on her pseudo-throne behind the banquet table and was eating a grape. Miara discovered that she was on her knees. Her body ached. She could feel the Mistress’s orders taking root, a new craving planted inside her, the seedling of a dark vine sprouting around her heart.
Kidnap a prince. She had never kidnapped someone before. Eavesdropping on the king or his advisers, sure, and the occasional theft from a noble. She had yet to go on a mission where the mark hadn’t proved to be corrupt, if not downright evil, so she had never lost much sleep over her activities, but… could anyone really deserve to be kidnapped?
“Do you have any questions?” the Mistress asked.
Yes, she thought. But you can’t answer that one. “If Dekana could not—”
“That does not matter.” Again, the eye twitch. This is not how Dekana died, Miara thought. But she would like for me to believe it is.
“I have never kidnapped someone, or even stolen anything larger than a book—”
“And that is not a question.”
“When must I begin?” she asked, trying and failing to hide the irritation in her voice. She knew to ask this from experience. If she didn’t, her cursed bond would drive her mad with an irrational need to rush off, prepared or not.
“Take time to prepare and gather what you need to be effective, but no more. Master Daes has wagered you are more than capable of this task. Your precocious nature has quite caught his attention. You wouldn’t want to let him down.” Her eye twitched again.