Lady Smoke Page 1


MY MOTHER ONCE TOLD ME that peace was the only way Astrea could survive. We had no need for vast armies, she said, no need to force our children into becoming warriors. We didn’t court war like other countries, in an effort to take more than we needed. Astrea was enough, she said.

She never imagined that war would come to us, courted or not. She would live just long enough to see how poorly peace fared against the Kalovaxians’ wrought-iron blades and savage greed.

My mother was the Queen of Peace, but I know too well that peace isn’t enough.


THE SPICED COFFEE IS SWEET on my tongue, made with a generous dollop of honey. The way Crescentia always orders it.

We sit on the pavilion like we have a thousand times before, steaming porcelain mugs cradled in our hands to ward off the chill in the evening air. For a moment, it feels just like every time before, a comfortable silence hanging in the dark air around us. I’ve missed talking to her, but I’ve missed this, too—how we could sit together and not feel the need to fill the silence with meaningless small talk.

But that’s silly. How can I miss Cress when she’s sitting right in front of me?

She laughs like she can read my mind and sets her cup down on its saucer with a clatter that rattles my bones. She leans across the gilded table to take hold of my free hand in both of hers.

“Oh, Thora,” she says, her voice lilting over my false name like a melody. “I missed you, too. But next time, I won’t.”

Before her words can make sense to me, the lighting overhead shifts, the sun growing brighter and brighter until she’s fully illuminated, every awful inch of her. Her charred, flaking neck, burned black by the Encatrio I had her served, her hair white and brittle, her lips gray as the ersatz crown I used to wear.

Fear and guilt overwhelm me as the pieces fall into place in my mind. I remember what I did to her; I remember why I did it. I remember her face on the other side of the bars of my cell, full of rage as she told me she would cheer for my death. I remember the bars being scalding hot where she’d touched them.

I try to pull my hand away but she holds it fast, her storybook-princess smile sharpening into fangs tipped with ash and blood. Her skin burns hot against mine, hotter even than Blaise’s. It is fire itself against my skin, and I try to scream, but no sound comes out. I stop feeling my hand altogether and I’m relieved for a second before I look down and see that it has turned to ash, crumbled to dust in Cress’s grip. The fire works its way up my arm and down the other, spreading across my chest, my torso, my legs, and my feet. My head catches last, and the final thing I see is Cress with her monster’s smile.

“There. Isn’t that better? Now no one will mistake you for a queen.”

* * *

My skin is drenched when I wake up, cotton sheets tangled around my legs and damp with sweat. My stomach churns, threatening to spill, though I’m not sure I’ve eaten anything to spill, apart from a few crusts of bread last night. I sit up in bed, placing a hand on my stomach to steady it and blinking to help my eyes adjust to the dark.

It takes a moment to realize that I am not in my own bed, not in my own room, not in the palace at all. The space is smaller, the bed little more than a narrow cot with a thin mattress and threadbare sheets and a quilt. My stomach pitches to the side, rolling in a way that makes me nauseous before I realize it isn’t my stomach at all—the room itself is rocking from side to side. My stomach is only echoing the motion.

The events of the last two days filter back to me. The dungeon, the Kaiser’s trial, Elpis dying at my feet. I remember S?ren rescuing me only to be imprisoned himself. As quickly as that thought comes to me, I push it away. There are a good many things I have to feel guilty about—taking S?ren hostage cannot be one of them.

I’m on the Smoke, I remember, heading toward the Anglamar ruins to begin to reclaim Astrea. I am in my cabin, safe and alone, while S?ren is being kept in chains in the brig.

I close my eyes and drop my head into my hands, but as soon as I do, Cress’s face swims through my mind, all rosy cheeks and dimples and wide gray eyes, just as she looked the first time I met her. My heart lurches in my chest at the thought of the girl she was, the girl I was, who latched on to her because she was my only salvation in the nightmare of my life. Too quickly, that image of Cress is replaced with her as I last saw her, with hate in her cold gray eyes and the skin of her throat charred and flaking.

She shouldn’t have survived the poison. If I hadn’t seen her with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. Part of me is relieved that she did, though the other part will never forget how she looked at me when she promised to raze Astrea to the ground, how she said she would ask the Kaiser if she could keep my head after he executed me.

I flop down on my back, hitting the thin pillow with a thud. My whole body aches with exhaustion, but my mind is a whirl of activity that shows no sign of quieting. Still, I close my eyes tight and try to banish all thoughts of Cress, though she lingers on the edges, a ghost of a presence.

The room is too quiet—so quiet it takes on a sound all its own. I hear it in the absence of my Shadows’ breaths, their infinitesimal movements as they fidget, their whispers to one another. It is a deafening sort of silence. I turn onto one side, then the other. I shiver and pull the quilt tighter around me; I feel the fire of Cress’s touch again and kick the quilt off entirely, so that it falls in a heap onto the floor.

Sleep isn’t coming anytime soon. I roll out of bed and find the thick wool cloak Dragonsbane left in my cabin. I pull it over my nightgown. It swamps me, hanging down to my ankles, cozy and shapeless. The material is fraying, and it’s been patched so many times that I doubt there is anything of the original cloak left, but I still prefer it to the fine silk gowns the Kaiser used to force me to wear.

As always, thinking of the Kaiser makes the flame of fury in my belly burn brighter until it scorches through me, turning my blood to lava. It’s a feeling that frightens me, even as I relish it. Blaise promised me once that I would light the fire that would turn the Kaiser’s body to ash, and I don’t think this feeling will abate until I do.

THE PASSAGEWAYS OF THE SMOKE are deserted and quiet, without a soul in sight. The only sound is the light patter of footsteps overhead and the muted din of waves crashing against the hull. I turn down one hallway, then another, looking for a way up to the deck before realizing how hopelessly lost I am. Though I thought I had a decent idea of the ship’s layout during Dragonsbane’s tour earlier in the evening, it looks like an entirely different place at this hour. I glance over my shoulder, expecting to see a flash of one of my Shadows before I realize they aren’t there. No one is.

For ten years, the presence of others was a constant weight on my shoulders that suffocated me. I hungered for the day I could finally shrug it off and just be alone. Now, though, there is a part of me that misses the constant company. They would, at the very least, keep me from getting lost.

Finally, after another few turns, I find a steep set of stairs going up to the deck. The steps are rickety and loud and I climb slowly, terrified that someone will hear and come after me. I have to remind myself that I’m not sneaking anywhere—I’m free to wander as I please.

I push open the door and sea air whips at my face, blowing my hair in all directions. I smooth it back with one hand to keep it out of my eyes and pull my cloak tighter around me with the other. I didn’t realize how stale the air belowdecks was until fresh air is in my lungs.

Up here, there are some crew members working, a skeleton crew to ensure that the Smoke doesn’t go off course or sink in the middle of the night, but they’re all too bleary-eyed and focused on their tasks to spare me more than a glance as I walk by.

The night is cold, especially with the wind as vicious as it is on the water. I cross my arms over my chest as I make my way up to the bow of the ship.


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