A Court for Thieves (A Throne for Sisters—Book Two) - Morgan Rice - ebook
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Morgan Rice has come up with what promises to be another brilliant series, immersing us in a fantasy of valor, honor, courage, magic and faith in your destiny. Morgan has managed again to produce a strong set of characters that make us cheer for them on every page.…Recommended for the permanent library of all readers that love a well-written fantasy.”--Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos (regarding Rise of the Dragons)From #1 Bestseller Morgan Rice comes an unforgettable new fantasy series. In A COURT FOR THIEVES (A Throne for Sisters—Book Two), Sophia, 17, finds her world upside down as she is cast from the romantic world of aristocracy and back to the horrors of the orphanage. This time the nuns seem intent on killing her. Yet that doesn’t pain her as much as her broken heart. Will Sebastian realize his mistake and come back for her?Her younger sister Kate, 15, embarks on her training with the witch, coming of age under her auspices, mastering the sword, gaining more power than she ever imagined possible—and determined to embark on a quest to save her sister. She finds herself immersed in a world of violence and combat, of a magic she craves—and yet one that may consume her.A secret is revealed about Sophia and Kate’s lost parents, and all may not be what it seems for the sisters. Fate, indeed, may be turned on its head. A COURT FOR THIEVES (A Throne for Sisters—Book Two) is the second book in a dazzling new fantasy series rife with love, heartbreak, tragedy, action, adventure, magic, sorcery, dragons, fate and heart-pounding suspense. A page turner, it is filled with characters that will make you fall in love, and a world you will never forget. Book #3 in the series—A SONG FOR ORPHANS—will be released soon.“An action packed fantasy sure to please fans of Morgan Rice’s previous novels, along with fans of works such as The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini…. Fans of Young Adult Fiction will devour this latest work by Rice and beg for more.” --The Wanderer, A Literary Journal (regarding Rise of the Dragons)

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A COURT FOR THIEVES

(A THRONE FOR SISTERS -- BOOK 2)

Morgan Rice

Morgan Rice is the #1 bestselling and USA Today bestselling author of the epic fantasy series THE SORCERER’S RING, comprising seventeen books; of the #1 bestselling series THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS, comprising twelve books; of the #1 bestselling series THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY, a post-apocalyptic thriller comprising three books; of the epic fantasy series KINGS AND SORCERERS, comprising six books; of the epic fantasy series OF CROWNS AND GLORY, comprising 8 books; and of the new epic fantasy series A THRONE FOR SISTERS. Morgan’s books are available in audio and print editions, and translations are available in over 25 languages.

Morgan loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.morganricebooks.com to join the email list, receive a free book, receive free giveaways, download the free app, get the latest exclusive news, connect on Facebook and Twitter, and stay in touch!

Select Acclaim for Morgan Rice

“If you thought that there was no reason left for living after the end of THE SORCERER’S RING series, you were wrong. In RISE OF THE DRAGONS Morgan Rice has come up with what promises to be another brilliant series, immersing us in a fantasy of trolls and dragons, of valor, honor, courage, magic and faith in your destiny. Morgan has managed again to produce a strong set of characters that make us cheer for them on every page.…Recommended for the permanent library of all readers that love a well-written fantasy.”

--Books and Movie Reviews

Roberto Mattos

“An action packed fantasy sure to please fans of Morgan Rice’s previous novels, along with fans of works such as THE INHERITANCE CYCLE by Christopher Paolini…. Fans of Young Adult Fiction will devour this latest work by Rice and beg for more.”

--The Wanderer,A Literary Journal (regarding Rise of the Dragons)

“A spirited fantasy that weaves elements of mystery and intrigue into its story line. A Quest of Heroes is all about the making of courage and about realizing a life purpose that leads to growth, maturity, and excellence….For those seeking meaty fantasy adventures, the protagonists, devices, and action provide a vigorous set of encounters that focus well on Thor's evolution from a dreamy child to a young adult facing impossible odds for survival….Only the beginning of what promises to be an epic young adult series.”

--Midwest Book Review (D. Donovan, eBook Reviewer)

“THE SORCERER’S RING has all the ingredients for an instant success: plots, counterplots, mystery, valiant knights, and blossoming relationships replete with broken hearts, deception and betrayal. It will keep you entertained for hours, and will satisfy all ages. Recommended for the permanent library of all fantasy readers.”

--Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos

 “In this action-packed first book in the epic fantasy Sorcerer's Ring series (which is currently 14 books strong), Rice introduces readers to 14-year-old Thorgrin "Thor" McLeod, whose dream is to join the Silver Legion, the elite knights who serve the king…. Rice's writing is solid and the premise intriguing.”

--Publishers Weekly

Books by Morgan Rice

THE WAY OF STEEL

ONLY THE WORTHY (Book #1)

A THRONE FOR SISTERS

A THRONE FOR SISTERS (Book #1)

A COURT FOR THIEVES (Book #2)

A SLONG FOR ORPHANS (Book #3)

OF CROWNS AND GLORY

SLAVE, WARRIOR, QUEEN (Book #1)

ROGUE, PRISONER, PRINCESS (Book #2)

KNIGHT, HEIR, PRINCE (Book #3)

REBEL, PAWN, KING (Book #4)

SOLDIER, BROTHER, SORCERER (Book #5)

HERO, TRAITOR, DAUGHTER (Book #6)

RULER, RIVAL, EXILE (Book #7)

VICTOR, VANQUISHED, SON (Book #8)

KINGS AND SORCERERS

RISE OF THE DRAGONS (Book #1)

RISE OF THE VALIANT (Book #2)

THE WEIGHT OF HONOR (Book #3)

A FORGE OF VALOR (Book #4)

A REALM OF SHADOWS (Book #5)

NIGHT OF THE BOLD (Book #6)

THE SORCERER’S RING

A QUEST OF HEROES (Book #1)

A MARCH OF KINGS (Book #2)

A FATE OF DRAGONS (Book #3)

A CRY OF HONOR (Book #4)

A VOW OF GLORY (Book #5)

A CHARGE OF VALOR (Book #6)

A RITE OF SWORDS (Book #7)

A GRANT OF ARMS (Book #8)

A SKY OF SPELLS (Book #9)

A SEA OF SHIELDS (Book #10)

A REIGN OF STEEL (Book #11)

A LAND OF FIRE (Book #12)

A RULE OF QUEENS (Book #13)

AN OATH OF BROTHERS (Book #14)

A DREAM OF MORTALS (Book #15)

A JOUST OF KNIGHTS (Book #16)

THE GIFT OF BATTLE (Book #17)

THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY

ARENA ONE: SLAVERSUNNERS (Book #1)

ARENA TWO (Book #2)

ARENA THREE (Book #3)

VAMPIRE, FALLEN

BEFORE DAWN (Book #1)

THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS

TURNED (Book #1)

LOVED (Book #2)

BETRAYED (Book #3)

DESTINED (Book #4)

DESIRED (Book #5)

BETROTHED (Book #6)

VOWED (Book #7)

FOUND (Book #8)

RESURRECTED (Book #9)

CRAVED (Book #10)

FATED (Book #11)

OBSESSED (Book #12)

Did you know that I've written multiple series? If you haven't read all my series, click the image below to download a series starter!

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Copyright © 2017 by Morgan Rice. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author.  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

CHAPTER ONE

They made a spectacle of Sophia’s punishment, as Sophia should have known they would. They dragged her back to the House of the Unclaimed, only pulling the hood from her head once they reached its confines, shoving her along with stumbling steps through the streets of Ashton.

Kate, help me! Sophia sent, knowing that her sister was her best option of getting through this.

Nobody helped her, not even those she passed by. They knew she wasn’t some rich girl being kidnapped, just one of the indentured being taken back to face justice. Even hooded and wearing the rich dress of her disguise, it seemed that people could see that much. She could see their thoughts, with so many of them thinking she deserved it that she felt as though she were being spit on as they dragged her.

The masked nuns rang bells when her captors dragged her back. It might have seemed like a celebration, but Sophia knew it for what it was: a summons. They were dragging children from their beds to see what became of the ones who were stupid enough to run.

Sophia could see them now, clustered around the doorways and the windows of the orphanage. There were the older ones she knew, and younger ones who had only just come into what passed for the care of the place. All of them would watch what happened to her, and probably some of them would have nightmares about it afterward. The masked nuns wanted the children there to remember what they were, and to learn that there could be nothing better for them.

“Help me!” she called to them, but it made no difference.

She could see their thoughts. Some were too scared to move, some were still blinking with no understanding of what was happening. A few even thought that she deserved this; that she ought to be punished for breaking the rules.

The nuns pulled Sophia’s outer dress from her. Sophia tried to struggle, but one of the nuns just slapped her for it while the others held her in place.

“Do you think you get to wear finery? A shameless thing like you deserves no rich clothes. You barely deserve the life the goddess chose to give you.”

They stripped her down to her plain underdress, ignoring Sophia’s shame at it. They ripped the braids of her hair into wildness, not allowing her even that much control over how she looked. Whenever she gave them the slightest resistance, they hit her with open hands, leaving her reeling from it. Still, they marched her forward.

Sister O’Venn was one of the most eager to do it. She marched Sophia forward, speaking all the time at a volume the watching inhabitants of the orphanage were sure to hear.

“Did you think that you would be out in the world for long?” she demanded. “The Masked Goddess demands that her debts are paid! Did you think that a shameless thing like you could avoid it just by giving herself to some rich man?”

Was that a guess, or did they somehow know what Sophia had been doing? If so, how could they?

“Look at her,” Sister O’Venn called to the watching children. “Look at what happens to the ingrates and the runaways. The Masked Goddess gives you shelter here, asking only work in return! She gives you the chance of lives filled with meaning. Reject that and this is the price!”

Sophia could feel the fear of the orphans around her, so many thoughts together forming a wave of it. A few debated helping her, but there was never any real chance of it. Most were simply grateful that it wasn’t them.

Sophia fought as they dragged her to the courtyard, but it made no difference. Perhaps Kate could have battled her way clear of them, but Sophia had never been a fighter. She’d been the clever one, only she hadn’t been clever enough. She’d been caught, and now…

…now there was a post awaiting her at the center of the courtyard, its intention obvious.

There were jeers from some of the children there as the nuns led Sophia to that post, and that hurt almost more than the rest of it. She knew why they were doing it, because if she’d been up there she would have joined in, if only to ensure that she wouldn’t be singled out for some punishment. Even so, Sophia felt tears in her eyes as she looked around at the anger in some of the young faces watching.

She was going to be a warning to them. For the rest of their lives, they would think about her anytime they thought about escaping.

Sophia called out with her powers as they tied her to the post, pressing her face to it and holding her in place with ropes of rough hemp.

Kate, help! They caught me!

There was no answer, though, as the nuns continued to tie Sophia in place like some sacrifice to the darker things people had worshipped before the Masked Goddess. She screamed for help with all the mental effort she could summon, but it didn’t seem to make any difference.

The nuns took their time. This was obviously intended to be about theater as much as pain. Or maybe they just didn’t want Sophia able to give with any of the blows that followed to reduce their sting.

Once Sophia was tied in place, the nuns led some of the younger children in, making them look at her as though she were some wild beast caught in a menagerie.

“We must be grateful,” Sister O’Venn said. “We must be humble. We must repay the Masked Goddess what we owe her for her gifts. Fail, and there is a price. This girl ran. This girl was arrogant enough to set herself above the goddess’s will. This girl was wanton and proud.”

She said it like a judge passing sentence, even before she moved close to Sophia. It was starting to rain now, and Sophia could feel the cold of it in the dark.

“Repent,” she said. “Repent your sins, and pay the goddess the price for your forgiveness!”

She’ll suffer either way, but she must choose.

Sophia could see the same sentiment in the thoughts of the others. They meant to hurt her just as much regardless of what she said. There was no point in trying to lie and beg forgiveness, because the truth was that even the meekest of the sisters there wanted to hurt her. They wanted to do it as an example to the others, because they genuinely believed that it would be good for her soul, or simply because they liked watching people hurt. Sister O’Venn was one of the latter.

“I’m sorry,” Sophia said. She could see the others there, drinking in her words. “I’m sorry I didn’t run twice as fast! You should all run,” she shouted to the children there. “They can’t stop all of you. They can’t catch all of you!”

Sister O’Venn slapped her head against the wood of the punishment post, then shoved a length of dowel between Sophia’s teeth so roughly it was a miracle she didn’t snap any.

“So that you don’t bite your tongue screaming,” she said with a mock sweetness that had nothing to do with the things Sophia could see in her mind. Sophia could understand Kate’s urge for revenge then, her wish to burn it down around them. She would have set light to Sister O’Venn without a second thought.

The masked sister brought out a whip, testing it where Sophia could see. It was an evil-looking thing, with multiple strands of leather, all with knots along their length. It was the kind of thing that could bruise and tear, far harsher than any of the belts or rods that had been used to beat Sophia in the past. She tried to struggle clear of her bonds, but it made no difference. The best she could hope for was to stand there defiantly as they punished her.

When Sister O’Venn struck her for the first time, Sophia almost bit through the wooden dowel. Agony exploded through her back, and she could feel it tearing open under the blows.

Please, Kate she sent, please!

Again, there was the sensation of her words floating off without connection, without answer. Had her sister heard them? It was impossible to know, when there was no reply. Sophia could only hang there, and hope, and call for her.

Sophia tried not to scream at first, if only to deny Sister O’Venn what she really wanted, but the truth was that there was no holding it at bay when pain like fire burned across her back. Sophia screamed with every impact, until it felt as though there was nothing left within her.

When they finally pulled the dowel from her mouth, Sophia tasted blood on it.

“Do you repent now, you evil girl?” the masked sister demanded.

Sophia would have killed her if there had been even a moment’s opportunity, would have run a thousand times if she thought that there was a chance she could get away. Even so, she forced her sobbing body to nod, hoping that she could look contrite enough.

“Please,” she begged. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have run.”

Sister O’Venn leaned in close enough to laugh at her then. Sophia could see the anger there, and the hunger for more.

“Do you think I can’t tell when a girl is lying?” she demanded. “I should have known from the moment you came here that you were a wicked thing, given where you came from. I’ll make you properly penitent, though. I’ll beat the wickedness out of you if I have to!”

She turned to the others there, and Sophia hated the fact that they were still just watching, still as statues, frightened into immobility. Why weren’t they helping her? Why weren’t they at least recoiling in horror, running from the House of the Unclaimed to get as far away from the things it did as they could? They all just stood there while Sister O’Venn stalked in front of them, her bloodied scourge hanging in her hand.

“You come to us as nothing, as evidence of another’s sin, or as drains upon the world!” the masked nun called. “You leave here shaped into boys and girls ready to serve the world as you are required. This one sought to run before her indenture. She took years of safety and instruction here, and she tried to run from what it costs!”

Because what it cost was the rest of the orphans’ lives, spent indentured to whoever could afford the cost of their upbringing. They might theoretically be able to repay the cost, but how many did that, and what did they suffer in the years it took them?

“This one should have been indentured days ago!” the masked nun said, pointing. “Well, tomorrow, she will be. She will be sold as the ungrateful wretch that she is, and there will be no easy time for her now. There will be no kind men looking for a bought wife, or nobles looking for a servant.”

That was what passed for a fine life, an easy life, in this place. Sophia hated that fact almost as much as she hated the people there. She hated the thought of what might happen to her too. She’d been about to become the wife of a prince, and now…

“The only ones who will want a wicked thing like this,” Sister O’Venn said, “are cruel men with crueler aims. This girl brought it upon herself, and now she will go where she must.”

“Where you choose to send me!” Sophia countered, because she could see from the masked nun’s thoughts that she had sent for the worst people she could think of. There was a kind of torment just in being able to see that. She looked around again at each of the masked nuns there, trying to stare through the veils to reach the women beneath.

“I’m only going to people like that because you choose to send me. You choose to indenture us. You sell us as though we’re nothing!”

“You are nothing,” Sister O’Venn said, shoving the dowel back into Sophia’s mouth.

Sophia glared at her, reaching out to try to find some speck of humanity somewhere in there. There was nothing that she could find, only cruelty masquerading as necessary firmness, and evil pretending to be duty, without even real belief behind it. Sister O’Venn just liked to hurt the weak.

She hurt Sophia then, and there was nothing Sophia could do except scream.

She threw herself against the ropes, trying to tear free, or at least find some iota of room in which to escape the scourge ripping out penitence from her. There was nothing she could do, though, except scream, begging mutely into the wood she bit into while her power sent her screams out into the city, hoping that her sister would hear them somewhere in Ashton.

There was no reply except the steady whistle of braided leather through the air and the slap of it against her bloodied back. The masked nun beat her with a seemingly interminable strength, long past the point where Sophia’s legs could hold her up, and past the point where she even had the strength left to scream.

At some point after that, she must have passed out, but that made no difference. By that point, even Sophia’s nightmares were things of violence, bringing back old dreams of a burning house and men she had to outrun. When she came back to herself, they were done, the others long gone.

Still tied in place, Sophia wept while the rain washed away the blood of her beating. It would have been easy to believe that it couldn’t get worse, except that it could.

It could get so much worse.

And tomorrow, it would.

CHAPTER TWO

Kate stood above Ashton and watched it burn. She had thought that she would be happy to see it gone, but this wasn’t just the House of the Unclaimed or the spaces where the dock workers kept their barges.

This was everything.

Wood and thatch caught light, and Kate could feel the terror of the people there within the wide circle of houses. Cannon roared over the screams of the dying, and Kate saw swathes of buildings falling as easily as if they were made from paper. Blunderbusses sounded, while arrows filled the air so thickly it was hard to see the sky beyond them. They fell, and Kate walked through the rain of them with the strange, detached calm that could only come from being in a dream.

No, not a dream. This was more than that.

Whatever the powers of Siobhan’s fountain, they ran through Kate now, and she saw death all around her. Horses ran through the streets, riders cutting downward with sabers and backswords. Screams came from all around her until they seemed to fill the city as surely as the fire did. Even the river appeared to be on fire now, although as Kate looked, she saw that it was the barges that filled the broad expanse of it, fire leaping from one to another as men fought to get clear. Kate had been on a barge, and she could guess at how terrifying those flames must be.

There were figures running through the streets, and it was easy to tell the difference between the panicked citizens of the city and the figures in ochre-colored uniforms who followed with blades, hacking at them as they ran. Kate had never seen the sack of a city before, but this was something awful. It was violence for the sake of it, with no sign of stopping.

There were lines of refugees beyond the city now, heading out with whatever possessions they could carry in long rows heading out into the rest of the country. Would they seek refuge in the Ridings or go further, out to towns like Treford or Barriston?

Then Kate saw the riders bearing down on them, and she knew that they wouldn’t make it that far. There was fire at the back of them, though, so there was nowhere to run. What would it be like to be caught like that?

She knew, though, didn’t she?

The scene shifted, and now Kate knew that she wasn’t looking at something that might be, but something that had been. She knew this dream, because it was one that she had far too often. She was in an old house, a grand house, and there was danger coming.

There was something different this time though. There were people there, and Kate looked up at them from so far below that she knew she must have been tiny. There was a man there, looking worried but strong in a nobleman’s velvet, hastily thrown on, and a curled black wig discarded in his rush to deal with the situation, revealing cropped gray hair below. The woman with him was lovely but disheveled, as if it normally took her an hour to dress with the aid of servants and now she’d done it in minutes. She had a kind look to her, and Kate reached out to her, not understanding why the woman didn’t pick her up, when that was what she usually did.

“There’s no time,” the man said. “And if we all try to break free, they will just follow. We need to go separately.”

“But the children—” the woman began. Kate knew now without being told that this was her mother.

“They will be safer away from us,” her father said. He turned to a servant, and Kate recognized her nurse. “You need to get them out, Anora. Take them somewhere safe, where no one will know them. We will find them when this madness is done.”

Kate saw Sophia then, looking far too young, but also looking ready to argue. Kate knew that look far too well.

“No,” their mother said. “You have to go, both of you. There is no time. Run, my darlings.” There was a crash from somewhere else in the house. “Run.”

Kate was running then, her hand held firmly in Sophia’s. There was a crash, but she didn’t look back. She just kept going, out along corridors, pausing only to hide as shadowy figures passed. They ran until they found an open set of windows, heading out of the house, out into the darkness…

Kate blinked, coming back to herself. The morning light above her seemed too bright, the shine of it dazzling. She tried to grab for the dream as she woke, tried to see what had happened next, but it was already fleeing faster than she could hold to it. Kate groaned at that, because she knew that the last part hadn’t been a dream. It had been a memory, and it was one memory that Kate wanted to be able to see more than all the others.

Still, she had her parents’ faces in her mind now. She held them there, forcing herself not to forget. She sat up slowly, her head swimming with the aftermath of what she’d seen.

“You should take it slowly,” Siobhan said. “The fountain’s waters can have aftereffects.”

She was sitting on the edge of the fountain, which looked ruined again now, not bright and fresh as it had been when Siobhan had drawn water from it for Kate to drink. She looked exactly the same as she had what must have been a night ago, even the flowers twined into her hair looking untouched, as though she hadn’t moved in all that time. She was watching Kate with an expression that said nothing about what she was thinking, and the walls that she kept around her mind meant that she was a total blank, even to Kate’s power.

Kate tried to stand simply because she wouldn’t be stopped from it by this woman. The forest around her seemed to swim as she did, and Kate saw a haze of colors around the edges of trees, stones, branches. Kate stumbled, having to rest her hand against a broken column to steady herself.

“You will have to learn to listen to me if you’re to be my apprentice,” Siobhan said. “You can’t expect to be able to simply stand up after that many changes in your body.”

Kate gritted her teeth and waited for the sensation of dizziness to pass. It didn’t take long. Judging by her expression, even Siobhan was surprised when Kate stepped away from the support of the column.

“Not bad,” she said. “You’re adjusting quicker than I might have thought. How do you feel?”

Kate shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Then take the time to think,” Siobhan snapped back with just a hint of annoyance. “I want a student who thinks about the world, rather than just reacting to it. I think that’s you. Do you want to prove me wrong?”

Kate shook her head again. “I’m getting… the world seems different when I look at it.”

“You’re starting to see it as it is, with the currents of life,” Siobhan said. “You will get used to it. Try moving.”

Kate took a faltering step, then another.

“You can do better than that,” Siobhan said. “Run!”

That was a little too close to Kate’s dreams for comfort, and she found herself wondering how much of it Siobhan had seen. She had said that she and Kate weren’t the same, but if they were close enough for the other woman to want to teach her, then maybe they were close enough for Siobhan to see into her dreams.

There was no time to think about that right then, because Kate was too busy running. She sprinted through the woods, her feet skimming over the moss and the mud, the fallen leaves and the broken branches. It was only as she saw the trees whipping by that she realized just how fast she was moving.

Kate leapt, and suddenly she was springing into the lower branches of one of the trees around her, as easily as if she’d stepped up from a boat to a dock. Kate balanced on the branch, seeming to feel every breath of wind that moved it before it could shake her off. She hopped back down to the ground and, on impulse, moved to a heavy fallen branch that she could never have hoped to lift before. Kate felt the roughness of the bark against her hands as she gripped it, and she lifted it smoothly, hoisting it above her head like one of the strongmen at the fairs that came to Ashton every so often. She threw it, watching the branch disappear into the trees to land with a crash.

Kate heard it, and for a moment, she heard every other sound around her in the forest. She heard the rustle of leaves as small things moved under them, the chirp of birds up in the branches. She heard the scuff of tiny feet against the ground, and knew the spot where a hare would appear before it came. The sheer panoply of sounds was too much at first. Kate had to clamp her hands to her ears to keep out the drip of water from leaves, the movement of insects along bark. She clamped down on it the way she’d learned to with her talent for hearing thoughts.

She returned to the spot where the ruined fountain stood, and Siobhan was there, smiling with what seemed to be a hint of pride.

“What is happening to me?” Kate asked.

“Only what you asked for,” Siobhan said. “You wanted strength to defeat your enemies.”

“But all of this…” Kate began. The truth was that she’d never believed so much could happen to her.

“There are many forms that magic can take,” Siobhan said. “You will not curse your enemies or scry on them from a distance. You will not call down lightning or summon the spirits of the restless dead. Those are paths for others.”

Kate raised an eyebrow. “Is any of that even possible?”

She saw Siobhan shrug. “It doesn’t matter. You have the strength of the fountain running in you now. You will be faster and stronger, your senses will be sharper. You will see things that most people cannot. Combined with your own talents, you will be formidable. I will teach you to strike in battle or from the shadows. I will make you deadly.”

Kate had always wanted to be strong, but even so, she found herself a little scared by it all. Siobhan had already told her that there would be a price for all of this, and the more wonderful it seemed, the greater she suspected that price was going to be. She thought back to what she’d dreamed, and she hoped that it wasn’t a warning.

“I saw something,” Kate said. “I dreamed it, but it didn’t feel like a dream.”

“What did it feel like?” Siobhan asked.

Kate was about to say that she didn’t know, but she caught Siobhan’s expression and thought better of it. “It felt like the truth. I hope not, though. In my dream, Ashton was in the middle of being razed. It was on fire, and the people were being slaughtered.”

She half expected Siobhan to laugh at her for even mentioning it, or maybe she hoped for it. Instead, Siobhan looked thoughtful, nodding to herself.

“I should have expected it,” the woman said. “Things are moving faster than I thought they would, but time is one thing even I cannot do anything about. Well, not permanently.”

“You know what’s happening?” Kate asked.

That earned her a smile that she couldn’t decipher. “Let’s just say that I have been expecting events,” Siobhan replied. “There are things that I have anticipated, and things that must be done in only a short amount of time.”

“And you aren’t going to tell me what’s going on, are you?” Kate said. She tried to keep the frustration out of her voice by focusing on everything that she had gained. She was stronger now, and faster, so should it matter that she didn’t know everything? It did though.

“Already, you’re learning,” Siobhan replied. “I knew I didn’t make a mistake in choosing you for an apprentice.”

In choosing her? Kate had been the one to seek out the fountain, not once, but twice. She’d been the one to ask for power, and the one to decide to accept Siobhan’s terms. She wasn’t going to let the other woman persuade her that it had been any other way.

“I came here,” Kate said. “I chose this.”

Siobhan shrugged. “Yes, you did. And now, it is time for you to begin to learn.”

Kate looked around. This wasn’t a library like the one in the city. It wasn’t a training field with fencing masters like the one where Will’s regiment had humiliated her. What could she learn, here in this wild place?

Even so, she prepared herself, standing in front of Siobhan and waiting. “I’m ready. What do I have to do?”

Siobhan cocked her head to one side. “Wait.”

She went to a spot where a small fire had been laid in a pit, ready to light. Siobhan tossed a flicker of flame into it without bothering with a flint and steel, then whispered words Kate couldn’t catch as smoke rose from it.

The smoke started to twist and writhe, forming itself into shapes as Siobhan directed it the way a conductor might have directed musicians. The smoke coalesced in a shape that was vaguely human, finally burning away to leave something that looked like a warrior from some long gone age. He stood holding a sword that looked wickedly sharp.

So sharp, in fact, that Kate had no time to even react when he thrust it through her heart.

CHAPTER THREE

They left Sophia to dangle in place for the night, held up only by the ropes they’d used to tie her to the punishment post. The sheer immobility of it was almost as much of a torture as her ravaged back, as her limbs burned with the lack of movement. She couldn’t do anything to ease the pain of her beating, or the shame of being left out there in the rain as a kind of warning to the others there.

Sophia hated them then, with the kind of hatred she had always chided Kate for holding too close. She wanted to watch them die, and the wanting of it was a kind of pain too, because there was no way that Sophia would ever be in a position to make it happen. She couldn’t even free herself now.

She couldn’t sleep either. The pain and the awkward position saw to that. The closest Sophia could come was a kind of half-dreaming delirium, the past mixing with the present while the rain continued to plaster her hair to her head.

She dreamed of the cruelty she’d seen in Ashton, and not just in the living hell of the orphanage. The streets had been almost as bad with their predators and their callous lack of care for those who ended up on them. Even in the palace, for every kindly soul, there had been another like Milady d’Angelica who seemed to revel in the power her position gave her to be cruel to others. She thought of a world that was filled with wars and human-wrought cruelty, wondering how it could have turned into such a heartless place.

Sophia tried to turn her thoughts to kinder things, but that wasn’t easy. She started to think about Sebastian, but the truth was that it hurt too much. Things had seemed so perfect between them, and then, when he’d found out what she was… it had fallen apart so quickly that now Sophia’s heart felt like ash. He hadn’t even tried to stand up to his mother or to stay with Sophia. He’d just sent her away.

Sophia thought about Kate instead, and thoughts of her brought with them the need to cry for help once more. She sent another call into the first glimmers of the dawn light, but still, there was nothing. Worse, thinking about her sister mostly brought with it memories of hard times in the orphanage, or other, earlier things.

Sophia thought about the fire. The attack. She’d been so young when it had happened that she barely remembered any of it. She could recall her mother’s and father’s faces, but not what they had sounded like outside of those few instructions to run. She could remember having to flee, but could only pull together the faintest glimpses of the time before that. There had been a wooden rocking horse, a large house where it had been easy to play at getting lost, a nanny…

Sophia couldn’t dredge up more than that from her memory. The House of the Unclaimed had covered it almost completely with a miasma made from pain, so that it was hard to think past the beatings and the grinding wheels, the enforced subservience and the dread that came from knowing what it all led to.

The same thing that awaited Sophia now: being sold like an animal.

How long did she hang there, held in place no matter how she tried to get away? Long enough that the sun was over the horizon, at least. Long enough that when the masked nuns came to cut her down, Sophia’s limbs gave way, leaving her to collapse to the courtyard’s stones. The nuns made no move to help her.

“Get up,” one of them ordered. “You don’t want your debt to be sold looking like that.”

Sophia continued to lie there, gritting her teeth against the pain as feeling crept back into her legs. She only moved when the nun lashed out, kicking her.

“Get up, I said,” she snapped.

Sophia forced herself to her feet, and the masked nuns took her by the arms the way Sophia imagined a prisoner might be escorted to her execution. She didn’t feel much better at the prospect of what was due to come for her.

They took her to a small stone cell, where there were buckets waiting. They scrubbed her then, and somehow the masked nuns managed to turn even that into a kind of torture. Some of the water was so hot that it scalded Sophia’s skin as it washed away the blood, making her scream with all the pain that she’d experienced when Sister O’Venn had beaten her.

More of the water was icy cold, in a way that made Sophia shiver with it. Even the soap the nuns used stung, burning at her eyes as they scrubbed her hair and bound it back in a rough knot that had nothing to do with the elegant designs of the palace. They took away her white underdress and gave her the gray shift of the orphanage to wear. After the fine clothes Sophia had worn in the previous days, it scratched at her skin with the promise of biting insects. They didn’t feed her. Presumably, it wasn’t worth it, now that their investment in her was at an end.

That was what this place was. It was like a farm for children, fattening them up just enough with skills and fear to make useful apprentices or servants and then selling them on.

“You know that this is wrong,” Sophia said as they marched her toward the door. “Can’t you see the things you’re doing?”

Another of the nuns cuffed her at the back of the head, making Sophia stumble.