The glass rained down like frozen tears, cold, jagged, dangerous, and Hastra hesitated, to see if any one had heard. The night gaped at her from within with an alluring stillness, as if there was nothing beyond but black and she felt herself beginning to breathe again.
She gritted her teeth and slipped her hand through the shards of glass, leering fang-like back at her, as she fumbled for the latch on the other side. She winced as the window complained in its frame, creaking open a breath.
This would be shoddy work even for an apprentice housebreaker, and Hastra had been doing this for years by now. In other circumstances she’d be ashamed of her slapdash efforts tonight, but desperation left her little space to feel anything, it seemed. She couldn’t think of anything but the dark-haired little girl lurking within.
She slipped, serpent-like, through the small window and paused on the other side, her feet silent upon the shattered shards. The large house entombing her was deathly still, as if there was not a single living soul left in it.
Perhaps there isn’t. I wouldn’t put it past Marda to have killed all of her own besotted servants already.
Hastra still waited, her ears straining, desperate to hear whether there was a faint tread of a guard doing his rounds, or a maid slipping back from a midnight assignation with a secret lover, or even a child, traipsing to the kitchens for a glass of water—but nothing came back at her.
Marda is either very confident or this is a trap.
Hastra secretly suspected it was the latter, but she didn’t have much choice about it, that she could see.
The house had been hard to find, and for good reason. Marda was one of the three contenders vying for the Seasalt throne, and the civil war still raging amongst them was brutal and bloody. Hastra was sure Marda had fended off more than one assassination attempt already, and she would fend off another before the war was through. Hastra intended to make sure of it.
Still, tonight, she was here for Maggi and no one else.
Satisfied that the house was quiet, at least for now, Hastra crept forwards. The house was large and sprawling, palatial, one might even say, though it had crept into a musty neglect. The stairs she tiptoed up now were large and ornate, even covered in a thick layer of dust as they were.
Does anyone even live here at all? Perhaps my information was wrong…
Hastra felt a prickling of unease tickling the back of her neck, but she pushed herself onwards anyway. She couldn’t leave now, not until she was certain that Maggi wasn’t here. She’d promised that little squirt she’d take care of her and it was a promise she intended to keep.
The house was just as morgue-like on the upper floors, still coated with that same sheen of dust, thick in the air, coating the floor like snow. It took Hastra a few moments to realise that it wasn’t dust at all.
Old magic. There had been many, large undertakings worked here, laid thickly on top of one another and abandoned without regret, without stopping to unbind them or break them properly, left to fizzle and fade into dust. Hastra felt another shiver of apprehension flooding through her. She knew very little about magic, no one in the Rat’s Nest where she lived and worked, really had very much to do with mage-witching or dark-witching or even technomancy, but even so. She knew enough to know that this was bad.
She gritted her teeth and forced her way forwards anyway. She was nothing if not stubborn, after all.
There was a soft breath of noise which made her pause where she stood. There it was again…her heart-rate quickening, she slipped up to one of the thick doors and pushed it open a breath. The room was grey-dark inside, the moonlight slipping through a crack in the curtains to reveal a big bed in the corner, and a small bundle snuffling sleepily inside.
Hastra’s throat went dry. It was really her. She was really here.
Hastra had crossed the room in seconds, pulling the covers back and stroking a hand over Maggi’s hair.
“Mags, it’s me. I’ve found you. Come on, it’s time to go.”
Maggi didn’t stir, still deep bound in sleep, and Hastra felt her panic notching up a little.
“Mags,” she said a little louder. “Maggi, wake up.”
Maggi sat up. Hastra squinted at her in the gloom for a moment, but it wasn’t until Maggi reached over and lit the candle stub beside her bed that Hastra realised what was wrong. The hair that had once been crudely ink dyed black, like Hastra’s own, was now bleached into golden hues like Marda’s.
She forced a smile to her face as Maggi looked over at her blearily.
“Hastra? What are you doing here?”
“Fetching you, of course. You didn’t believe I’d leave you here, did you? I’d never to do that to you. Come on, it’s time to go.”
“Go?” Maggi asked, her brow crinkling with sleepy confusion. “Go where?”
“Home, of course. Back to the Rat’s Nest where you belong.”
“I want to stay here.”
Hastra could only stare at her, words failing her completely for a moment. It seemed almost as if Maggi might start laughing in a minute, as if this was all going to be nothing more than a joke. But Maggi blinked, rubbing her eyes back into wakefulness, and the look on her face solidified into stubbornness.
“You’re not serious?”
“Why wouldn’t I want to stay here? This is a palace. Marda is a queen. She can offer me a life of luxury and pleasure, never stealing again, never fighting, never having to look over my shoulder. I can be happy here, Hastra. I can be safe.” Maggi’s voice was wistful, and she sounded a lot older than her meagre nine years.
“You can’t trust her. She tried to kill Gregyr.”
“And he helped kill Prince Odoro, as did you. That was where we met, remember?”
How could I forget? I hadn’t expected to see a scrappy little sewer brat on the rooftop that day.
Hastra knelt by the bed, and reached out a hesitant hand. She stroked a stray strand of hair, now golden blonde and forced into tortured curls, out of Maggi’s face.
“You don’t really mean that. She’s manipulating you, that’s all. Come home where you belong. Come back with me.”
“Oh, Hastra, no,” a soft voice said behind her in the darkness. Hastra cursed herself as she rolled up to her feet, a dagger materialising in her hand. Marda stood there in the shadows of the door. She had no weapon and no guard, nothing but a gentle, pitiful smile on her face.
“How do you know my name?” Hastra asked, and then immediately cursed herself for her folly. Of course Mag’s would have spilt the beans by now. Maggi had probably told this hag everything she knew about the Rat’s Nest already. Ice water flooded through her veins as the realisation sank in. That means she’ll know Gregyr is alive—and she’ll know how to find us, too. We’re all in terrible danger.
She tried to stop the panic from showing on her face, her fingers clutching around the dagger.
“Why don’t we—” Marda began easily, but Hastra, without warning, leapt across the room, without giving Marda a chance to realise what she was doing. Her dagger swept across the air, right where Marda’s throat should have been, but Hastra found herself hurtling backwards across the room, spinning through the air as if caught on a current. The knife went spinning out of her hand and lodged itself into the wall as Hastra sprawled, groaning across the floor.
“That wasn’t very polite,” Marda said calmly. She hadn’t moved an inch. “You didn’t think I’d be foolish enough to come unprotected, did you? I know I will never be safe until I have taken the throne. I know I can never rest, not even in my own house, until I have reclaimed my crown.”
“Not even then,” Hastra grunted from the floor. “Do you think you will stop this paranoia as queen? You will be hunted your entire life. You would have been safer if you had stayed gone, Marda.”
“I wanted my birthright.” The words were so soft that Hastra barely heard them. “Maggi, my dear, come here,” she added slightly louder, though still with that same chilling sweetness. Hastra struggled up into a sitting position, every bone aching. She had almost forgotten that Maggi was still here. Maggi traipsed past her, the hem of her new, pure white nightgown whispering against the floor as she went to stand besides Marda. Marda rested a hand on Maggi’s shoulder, stroking a golden curl out of the way.
“You can do whatever you want to, my love,” Marda promised her gently, her voice soft and sweet, her cornflower blue eyes staring earnestly into Maggi’s. “If you want to go back to the Rat’s Nest with Hastra, I won’t be offended or upset. I know this woman is important to you.”
“No, she isn’t,” Maggi protested, clutching on to Marda’s hands desperately, and another chill ran through Hastra at her words. “Not like you are. Oh, please don’t send me away, your grace. I want to stay with you.”
“Maggi, this isn’t like you. You don’t let anyone help you. You don’t take charity or handouts from anyone,” Hastra said urgently. “She’s done something to you, she’s messed with your mind. Please, come home.” She held out a hand, stretching her fingertips towards the child as if she could pull her home by force, but Maggi didn’t even turn her head to look at her. Hastra thought her heart might break into two within her.
“Are you sure, my love?” Marda murmured.
“Oh, I’m certain, your grace.” Maggi threw her arms around Marda’s waist and held her tightly, as if she feared being dragged away by force.
Marda smiled down at her, and Maggi beamed back, as if lit from within by her love. Hastra felt a cold coil of jealousy winding around her stomach, and the chill within grew even colder as Marda whispered sweetly:
“I think we’d better get rid of our guest then, don’t you?” and pressed a small blade into Maggi’s hand.
Maggi hesitated. She looked uncertainly between Marda, still smiling gently down at her, Hastra, spitting out curses, and the small knife in her hand.
“Is this a test?” she asked uncertainly.
“Oh, my love, all of life is a test.”
Maggi hesitated again and Marda sighed delicately.
“If you don’t feel like you can, Maggi, I quite understand. I know how difficult it must be to leave behind the life you knew. If you want to return to it, even now, after all I have done for you, I won’t try and stop you.”
Maggi’s hands tightened around the blade.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered and Hastra wasn’t sure who she was talking to, her or Marda. When Maggi looked up at Hastra, there were tears shimmering in her eyes. Then she darted forwards, the blade raised, swiping it inelegantly at Hastra.
The kid had been raised on the streets, but she was still only a brat, and Hastra was a full grown adult, hardened and tempered by experience. She fended off Maggi easily. Too easily, almost, and part of her recognised, even now, that Maggi didn’t really want to do this.
That would be a cold comfort in her grave, she thought.
Maggi swiped again, pushing Hastra further back across the room, and Marda watched carefully from the door, her eyes cold and cruel.
She’ll punish Mags if she doesn’t think she’s trying hard enough. Hastra knew what she had to do. She let Maggi slash and dive at her, herding her towards the window and that crack of moonlight slitting through it. Then she grabbed Maggi’s wrist as the kid dived forwards and directed the blade the kid held deep into her own chest, just beneath her ribs.
Maggi let go of it instantly, gasping in horror, as if she couldn’t believe what she had done, and Hastra staggered backwards, the knife a horrible, burning weight between her ribcage. She didn’t remove it, keeping it in place to stem the blood-flow. She staggered, somewhat theatrically back, as if the blade had hit a vital organ—though she had been careful to ensure that it hadn’t—and tumbled backwards out of the window, sending the curtains streaming out into the night air behind her. She span as she fell, making sure she landed properly, and, still clutching the knife to her chest, fled into the night.
She spared one last glance over her shoulder and saw the two of them lingering there in the window, watching her leave. Marda’s hand was resting lightly on Maggi’s shoulder, and Maggi’s face looked paper-pale even from here.
This isn’t the end, Mags, Hastra vowed. I will come back for you. I promise.