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Jimeta’s night rains wash away the weight of the day as Nailah and I leave the warship. The howling winds hit us with the sweet scent of brine and seaweed; all I could smell in those cramped quarters was burning wood and ash. Nailah’s meaty paws leave imprints in the sand as we exit the wooden docks and enter Jimeta’s winding streets. Her large tongue flops from her mouth when we run. I don’t remember the last time we galloped with nothing above us but the full moon and open air.

“That’s it, Nailah.” I hold her reins tight as we make our way through the nooks and valleys of Jimeta’s sandstone cliffs. The homes nestled within the towering bluffs go black as villagers put their lanterns out, preserving what precious oil they have. We turn a corner as sailors lock up the wooden lifts that transport them up and down the cliffs. My eyes widen at a new mural painted in red against a cave wall. The crimson pigment gleams in the moonlight, forming an created out of an assortment of different-size dots.

They’re calling themselves the Iyika. Roën’s words run through my head. The ‘revolution.’ The maji stormed Lagos when their powers came back. Word is their attack made it all the way to the palace.

I pull on Nailah’s reins, picturing the maji who painted this. The way Roën talked, the Iyika didn’t sound like a band of rebels.

They sounded like a true army.

“Mama, look!”

A small girl steps into the street as I approach a cluster of battered tents. She clutches a black porcelain doll to her chest, its painted face and silk dress the only mark of the girl’s noble heritage. The child’s only one of the new residents to fill Jimeta’s thinning streets, dirt paths narrowed by the rows of pitched tents that line their edges. As she walks further into the rain, I wonder what noble life the girl had before this. What misery she had to escape to get here.

“I’ve never seen a lionaire.” She stretches her small hand toward Nailah’s massive horns. I smile at the twinkle in the girl’s gaze, but when she nears, I see the white streak in her hair.

Another tîtán.

Resentment curls in me at the sight. According to Roën’s reports, roughly one-eighth of the population has magic now. Of those, about a third have the magic of tîtáns.

Marked by white streaks, the tîtáns appeared in the nobility and military after the ritual, displaying magic similar to one of the ten maji clans. But unlike us, their powers require no incantation to come forth. Like Inan, their raw abilities are quite strong.

I know their awakened magic must come from something I did wrong in the ritual, but the sight of them always makes my throat tight.

It’s hard to see their white streaks and not see him.

“Likka!” The girl’s mother runs into the rain, pulling a thick yellow shawl over her head. She grabs her daughter’s wrist, muscles tensing when she spots my white hair.

I click my tongue and ride off, dismounting Nailah when I reach the end of the path in front of Roën’s den. Her own daughter may have magic now, yet somehow she can still hate me for mine.

“Would you look at that.” A raspy voice greets me when I near the entrance of the hideout where Roën’s crew resides. I roll my eyes as the mercenary slides down his black mask, revealing Harun—Roën’s enforcer. The last time the mercenary and I met, I threw him to the ground. Roën told me I broke his ribs. Harun hasn’t approached me since that day, but now danger dances in his gaze.

“Tell me.” He drapes a heavy hand across my shoulders. “What’s brought my favorite maggot crawling out of the dirt?”

I throw off his arm and whip out my staff. “I’m not in the mood for your games.”

He smiles as I size him up, revealing his yellowed teeth. “These streets can be dangerous at night. Especially for a maggot like you.”

“Call me maggot again.”

My scars prickle at the slur King Saran had carved into my back. I clench my staff when more mercenaries slink out of the shadows. Before I know it, five of them have me cornered against the cavern wall.

“There’s a bounty on your head, maggot.” Harun steps forward, eyes flickering over the new golden marks on my skin. “I always thought you’d fetch a nice price, but even I couldn’t have guessed how high that price would rise.”

The smile drops off his face, and I catch the glint of a blade.

“The girl who brought magic back. Right before our eyes.”

With every threat Harun makes, the magic he speaks of bubbles in my blood. My ashê simmers like lightning gathering in a storm cloud, just waiting to be released with an incantation.

But no matter how many mercenaries appear, I won’t let it out. I can’t.

Magic’s the reason Baba’s gone. It’s a betrayal to use it now—

“What do we have here?”

Roën tilts his head, sauntering in from Jimeta’s streets. As he approaches the entrance of the cave, a ray of moonlight strikes a patch of smeared blood along his chin. I can’t tell whether or not the blood is his.

Ease drips from Roën’s stance and his foxer smile, but his storm-gray eyes pierce like knives.

“I hope you’re not having a party without me,” he says. “You both know how jealous I can get.”

The circle of mercenaries instinctively parts for their leader as he makes his way to the front. Harun’s jaw clicks when Roën pulls out a switchblade and flicks it open, using the tip to dig out grime from underneath his fingernails.

Harun looks me up and down before walking away. His threat leaves a bitter taste on my tongue as the other mercenaries follow suit, peeling off until Roën and I are alone.

“Thanks,” I say.

Roën pockets his blade and glances down at me, lines deepening in his frown. He shakes his head and gestures for me to follow.

“Whatever you have to say, my answer’s still no.” “Just hear me out,” I plead.

Roën walks briskly, forcing me to keep up with his long strides. I expect him to lead me into the mercenary den, but he takes the winding ledge around the cavern’s back instead. The path grows narrow as we ascend, but Roën only picks up the pace. I press into the cave wall as white waves crash against the sea bluffs meters below.

“There’s a reason I slogged through the rain to get to that ship,” Roën says. “You seem to forget my crew doesn’t love your angry little face as much as I do.”

“What was Harun going on about?” I ask. “Someone’s put a price on my head?”

Zïtsōl, you brought magic back. There’s no shortage of people willing to pay to get you in their grasp.”

We reach the end of the ledge and Roën steps onto a large wooden crate reinforced with iron planks. He motions for me to join him, and I hesitate, following the bundle of ropes attaching his shoddy pulley system to something above.

“You know, in my lands Zïtsōl is a term of endearment. It means ‘one who fears that which cannot hurt her.’”

I roll my eyes and step onto the moaning planks. Roën smiles as he pulls on the rope. A counterweight falls and the cart shudders when we rise, ascending like birds in the sky.

My fingers fly to the cart’s weathered edge when our height allows me to see all of Jimeta’s new tents. From the warship, I counted the dozens along the northern dock, but hundreds more run up and down the rocky coast.

In the distance, a long line of people trudge along, white-haired maji and dark-haired kosidán boarding a modest boat. It’s hard not to feel responsible as families disappear beneath the ship’s deck. I can’t believe the chaos from bringing magic back has already chased so many Orïshans from their homeland.

“Don’t waste your time looking down,” Roën says. “Look up.”

My lips part as I shift my gaze, taking in the views thirty meters into the air. This high up, Jimeta’s towering cliffs are dark silhouettes jutting into the sky. Bright stars coat the atmosphere like diamonds stitched into the fabric of night. The view makes me wish Baba were still alive; he always loved to stare up at the stars.

But as we continue to rise, I glance back down at the people below. I almost wish I was boarding a ship with them. What would it be like to sail to the promise of peace? To live in a land where maji weren’t the enemy? If I could leave all this behind, would it still hurt this much to breathe?

“Do you think they’ll be better off across the sea?” I ask.

“I doubt it,” Roën says. “It hardly matters where you are if you’re weak.”

The pit of guilt in my stomach hardens, squashing my fantasy. But that same pit turns to a flutter when Roën slides a hand around my waist.

“Besides, what soul could be better off that far away from me?”

“You have three seconds before I cut off your arm.”

“Three whole seconds?” Roën smiles as the cart swings to a stop. It brings us to the highest ledge, opening up into a modest cave. I hug myself as I step inside, taking in the sculpted rock formations that create a table and chair. A few panthenaire furs make up his bed. I didn’t think his home would be so bare.

“This is it?”

“What, you were expecting a palace?” Roën walks over to the only real furniture he has, a marble wardrobe filled with different weapons and blades. He removes a pair of brass knuckles from his pocket and lays them down on a rack. Blood still stains the polished rings.

I try not to picture the face Roën used them on as I search for the right words to make him give us what we need. I don’t want to be alone with him for too long. Despite Roën’s advances, I trust myself less than I trust him.

“We appreciate all you’ve done,” I say. “The patience you’ve had with us—”

“Please tell me Amari fed you better lines than that.” Roën starts to sit in his chair, but winces, reaching behind his neck. He pulls his shirt over his head and my face warms at the sight of his sculpted muscles, crisscrossed with new and old scars. But then I spot the gash below his shoulder.

I grab a stained rag from the floor, taking my chance to get close. Roën’s eyes narrow when I wring it out in a bucket of rainwater before wiping off his wound.

“You’re sweet, Zïtsōl. But I’m not in the business of favors.”

“This isn’t a favor,” I say. “Help us with the rally, and you’ll make double what you already have.”

“Enlighten me.” Roën tilts his head. “What is double of nothing?”

“If the ritual had gone as planned, Amari would be sitting on the throne. You’d already have your gold.”

Baba would be alive.

I chase away the thought before it can haunt me again. Thinking of what could’ve been won’t help me convince Roën to say yes.

Zïtsōl, charming as I may be, you don’t want men like me or Harun by your side. You definitely don’t want to be in our debt.”

“If Amari doesn’t make her claim to the throne, someone else will seize control.”

“That sounds like her problem.” Roën shrugs. “Why do you care?” “Because . . .” The right words slip to the tip of my tongue. Because she’s what’s best for this kingdom. She’s the only one who can call off the military’s maji hunt.

But staring at Roën, I don’t want to lie. Somehow, it feels like lying to myself.

“I thought things would be better.” I shake my head. “Magic was supposed to make things better.”

Speaking the truth aloud makes me feel like I might break. The truth makes my heart ache.

“Baba’s death, the tîtáns, the hunted maji,” I sigh. “All these people fleeing their homes. It hasn’t even been a moon since the ritual and it feels like magic’s destroyed the entire kingdom. Everything’s worse than it was before.” I wring out the rag, wishing I could turn back time. “Now that it’s here, I don’t want it. I wish I’d never wanted it at all.”

I exhale a shuddering breath and move to wipe away more blood, but Roën grabs my wrist, forcing me to look at him. His touch makes my skin hum. This is the first time since that night on the warship that we’ve truly been alone. Back then, we stood beneath the yellow moon, sharing nightmares and scars.

The way Roën looks at me now makes my skin crawl, but it also makes me want to draw close. It’s like his stormy eyes pierce through my shell, seeing me for the mess I truly am.

“If you don’t want magic anymore, what do you want?”

His question makes me pause. All I want is the people I’ve lost. But the more I think, the more I remember Mama’s embrace. The warmth of death’s escape.

“I want to be free,” I whisper. “I want to be done.”

“Then be done.” He pulls me in close, studying me as if I’m a knot to be unraveled. “Why ask for my help when you can cut your losses and call this the end?”

“Because if Amari’s not sitting on that throne, it was all for nothing. My father will have died for nothing. And if that happens . . .” My stoMach clenches at the thought. “If that happens, I’ll never be free. Not with that kind of guilt.”

Roën stares at me and I can see the objections rising to his tongue. But he seems to hold them between his teeth as I cup his chin, wiping away more blood.

He looks down and I see the tally marks that run up his arm, the worst of all his scars. He once told me that his torturers carved a new line every time they killed a member of his crew before his eyes; twenty- three tally marks for twenty-three lives. Deep down, I think those scars are the reason Roën left his homeland. The reason he understands me better than anyone else.

“I don’t give second chances, Zïtsōl. This would be your third.”

“You can trust me.” I stick out my hand. “I promise on Baba’s life. Help us finish this and you’ll collect in gold.”

Roën shakes his head, but relief rushes through me when he puts his hand in mine.

“Alright,” he says. “We’ll leave tonight.”


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