- Pages: 384 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Razorbill
- ISBN: 9781984835246
An Excerpt From
The Cruelest Mercy
“Well, that brings me to my next point. I was wondering if . . . that is, if you want to, and you definitely don’t have to, but I thought maybe you’d be interested, or maybe you’d want to go home, but in case you didn’t—”
My own nerves build, and I almost shake him. “Jet, what?”
He inhales and reaches into his tunic pocket, and panic jolts through me as I realize this is starting to look a lot like a courtship proposal. By which two people would make a relationship official, and very public. Except, as I reflected just a moment ago, what Jet and I have is barely a ship. This is a friendship; this is two people who survived something horrible and thought it might be nice to kiss this person sometime and see what happens, except I know the royals like to move ridiculously fast—
He pulls his hand from his pocket. But where I dreaded there might be a couples’ necklace, instead a wide silver armband shines in his palm. “Will you be my advisor?”
“Oh, thank the gods,” I say, relieved that maybe we’re on the same page after all. Jet looks slightly concerned by my reaction, and I clear my throat. “I mean, yes. Maybe? What would I need to do, exactly . . . and why is there jewelry?”
Jet snorts. “What did you think I was going to ask you?”
“Nothing! Absolutely nothing, I just like to make things awkward— What were you about to say I’d do?”
Jet snickers, likely putting together exactly what my assumption was, and holds up the band. “There’s jewelry because this is what all advisors wear to display their station. It’ll give you access to nearly anyplace I can go in the palace. There’s a symbol here, see?” He shows me a golden lantern stamped into one side. “You’d be on a team, helping me make decisions about things like taxes and laws and how they would affect people.”
I blink. “You’re going to put me in charge of laws?”
He gives me a look. “Don’t discount what you can do. You’re my best eyes and ears for how to help the working classes. I’ve also asked Melia and Marcus, who’ve agreed to stay, bless them, and I’ll likely pull in a top scientist, and one of my father’s advisors, too. Your help would be invaluable in so many ways.” His smile turns clever, and he nudges my arm. “I also rather like having you around, you know, in general. Melia tries, but no one can throw out demeaning compliments quite like you.”
I nod. “You do make it easy sometimes.”
“Is that a yes?”
I pluck the armband from his hand, weighing my potential responsibilities in my palm. This would mean decidedly not returning to a normal life, with the problems with Wyrim just beginning and all the pressures this job would entail. Already Jet has had to make decisions that have no happy outcome, like choosing his life over his brother’s. There would be a lot to learn—about politics and the court, trade and taxes, and I know there would be days I’d long for simpler times at the stable. Not that all my work is easy there, either, but at least my decisions don’t determine the fate of kingdoms.
But it wouldn’t all be stress. I could see Jet and Marcus and Melia whenever I liked. I would never again worry about what would happen to me after my magic fades, when I’d otherwise be assigned to various jobs around the country, separated from my family, until I served Orkena my full sixty summers. And instead of wishing laws like that would change . . . I could be the one behind the changes. I could help other Whisperers in a way that would actually matter.
Which feels like the perfect ending for my story . . . and maybe the beginning of something greater.
I turn the wide band, feeling oddly shy. “Can my father live here?”
“Absolutely. And Hen and her mother, too, if they want. Why do you think I made sure Hen’s job was here?”
Ever the strategist, in all the best ways. “Then yes. Definitely.”
His eyes shine bright as bronze. “Yes?”
“Someone’s got to keep you in check.” I clasp on the armband and tap it with a finger. “I’m also going to need a list of all the places this can get me into.”
He pulls a small scroll and a miniature quill from his pocket. “I’ll work on that.”
I snicker. “You don’t have to do it right now. Aren’t you supposed to be meeting the priests soon?”
“There’s only a hundred or so places to list. And it’s not like I haven’t been late to palace meetings before.”
I freeze in adjusting the armband. “Wait, you’re being serious? And what do you mean ‘been late before’? When are you supposed to meet the priests?”
Jet glances at the water clock on a golden end table. “Ten minutes ago?”
I grab his wrist. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack? Do you know who gets blamed for these things in the stories? The new advisor! We are leaving, right now. I’m not being dragged behind a horse or hung from my toes or whatever it is you people do to disappointing servants.”
He chuckles. “Those punishments are archaic, and you are most definitely not a servant—”
A knock sounds on the door. “Dommel,” a man says. “May we come in?”
Jet grins and pulls gently from my grasp. “Ah. See? If you wait long enough, the priests come to you.” He looks to the doors. “Enter.”
And it’s like a terrible flashback to one of the worst moments of my life: in walks the grumpy priest who deemed Kasta’s knife mark on my wrist divine, followed by his haughty young apprentice, who still looks like a paler, meaner version of him. Except this time, instead of glaring down her nose at me, her gaze drops to my chest. Where her eyes widen in recognition at the vivid red scar the sacrificial knife left over my heart. And I again begin to question my life decisions. It seemed like such a good idea this morning, when Hen and I were getting ready, to choose a jole with a particularly low neckline—in this case, one cut almost to my navel—as I know the nobility will ask about the knife’s scar whether they can see it or not, and I’m determined to show them it belongs to me and not the boy who made it. That’s still my plan, but I’ll admit the staring is getting awkward.
The apprentice drops to one knee . . . and raises her fingertips to her forehead, like she would for a Mestrah.
“Gudina,” she says, the light gleaming off her blonde hair. “It’s an honor to be in your presence.”
Gudina: Holy One. I glance uneasily at Jet, and at the grumpy priest, who—impossibly—is not regarding me with even a hint of a sneer. Well, maybe there’s a little bit of a grimace. But he looks like he’s trying very hard not to, which is still an improvement.
“Living Sacrifice.” The priest dips his head. “My honor as well.”
His apprentice rises, keeping her eyes on the floor. It’s only after the priest has turned to Jet that I realize they addressed me before addressing the crown prince. Which Jet warned me this morning might happen, at least until he’s crowned, because that’s how the priests scrambled to explain my survival at the end of the Crossing: as divine intervention. Apparently they’ve even gone so far as to claim the girl I was actually did die on the end of the sacrificial knife, and that a goddess returned in my place.
Hiding my identity as the Living Sacrifice was easy enough in Kystlin, where I was just one more nameless refugee. But tonight that ends.
“Perhaps you missed our summons, dommel.” The priest gives Jet a look like he knows that isn’t the case. “But it’s time to get dressed, and then the Mestrah would like to go over a few final ceremonial details. Gudina, are you sure you wouldn’t like to watch from the royal dais?”
I almost laugh. “Gods, no.” I may be here to make this scar mine, but the last thing I want is to be studied like a piece of art for the better part of an hour. I realize too late this is a very uncourtly way to respond, and hastily correct myself. “I mean, no. Thank you.”
Jet pockets the scroll and quill. “Has the Materialist finished her alterations on my tunic?”
“Ah.” The priest rubs his bald head. “I forgot about the hole. Alise, will you check on that immediately?”
“Of course, adel.” She bows and takes her leave.
“There was a hole in your coronation tunic?” I ask. No wonder Jet wants the Royal Materialist to hire Hen.
“A purposeful one, though for an outdated reason.” Jet taps the top of his chest. “In a normal contest, the sacrificial knife would have created a mark here on the winning heir. A circle of Numet that proves they completed the sacrifice. Galena referenced old paintings for her coronation design, where the tunics used to open at the center to show it off. We reminded her there wasn’t a sacrifice. No mark.” Jet smiles. “Thank the gods.”
“Oh.” Dread prickles my arms, and I touch the wide necklace around my throat. “Right.”
“I need to ask her about the banquet tunic, too,” Jet says, this time to the priest as they start for the door. “But I suppose we could always draw a mark if needed, for the purposes of tradition . . . Zahru, are you coming?”
They turn in the doorway. I haven’t moved. That dread climbs my throat now, thick as smoke.
“Yes!” I pipe. “I just . . . need to check my face.”
“All right. We’ll be right outside.”
I dart past the bed, suddenly grateful the room is so much more than a room. A washing basin waits inside a lavish en suite, and I catch my balance on its cold marble edge, panic shoving against my skull.
I steel myself and look up at the gilded mirror.
“It’s not, it’s not, it’s not,” I mutter, raising shaking hands to the bronze necklace. Hen and I chose this piece not only because its gemmed flowers add color to the plain gold of my dress, but also because I still have a nasty bruise on my chest from the sacrificial knife, and this is the best way to cover it. So maybe it’s a little strange, now that I think about it, that this particular bruise never faded to green or yellow with the rest of my bruises, and that it’s closer to the base of my throat than to the knife’s scar. Or that Hen and I had just been joking about how it seemed to be taking on a shape, and we were going to start charging people to see it, like someone might for a slice of cheese that looks like Sabil’s face. Coincidence. No one in the world can possibly be this unlucky.
I lift the heavy gemstones, and my breath catches.
The deep scarlet of the swirling circle of Numet smiles back at me.
“Oh, no,” I whisper.