Ship of Smoke and Steel (The Wells of Sorcery #1)(11)

“What about the boy?” one of the others, a woman, says.

“Bring him in for questioning,” the leader says.

Options, options. None of them good.

Nowhere to run. The back window is too small to fit through easily, and it only leads to the enclosed central yard. The walls are thin, but not thin enough that I can break them before the Immortals are on me.

Fight them? But these are Immortals, not street thugs. Every one of the seven could be an adept as powerful as I am. And if they’re here, they know about my power, so I have no advantage of surprise. I could try anyway, and probably die. Not necessarily the worst option.

I’m not getting out of this room alive and free, then. What happens if I go along quietly? Unclear. Maybe rape, torture, breeding-stock for some noble family. Maybe execution. Maybe, maybe. Not enough information.

What happens to Tori? There’s money stashed away, hidden against the event of my death. Secret letters with people I trust. Insurance. I’m not a fool. Can they find her? Only if someone talks.

Everyone talks, if you hurt them for long enough. But I’ll always have the option of dying. If I ignite my blades and summon my armor, I can always make them kill me, and then the pain will stop. Tori will be safe.

Hagan. He doesn’t know the whole truth. But he knows enough. I’ve gotten sloppy. Has he put the pieces together? Would he, when they’re pulling out his fingernails?

He meets my eye. It’s the same look he gave me in the gambling parlor, a split-second silent conversation. How are we going to play this?

He’s terrified. I can see it.

He’ll talk. He doesn’t owe me anything. He’s just someone I pay to back me up. I’ve made that clear, haven’t I?

My eyes say, I’m sorry.

I bring my left hand up, underneath Hagan’s chin. I turn my gaze to the Immortal leader as I ignite my blade. There’s a soft, wet sound, and a warm spray against my fingers.

Several of the Immortals take a threatening step forward. I dismiss the blade and raise my hands. Hagan’s corpse collapses with a thud.

The Immortal leader crosses the room in a few strides and slams his gauntleted fist into my stomach. As I double over, my face meets his knee on the way down, and I feel my lip split. I hit the floor, and a moment later the first boot slams into my side. Bone crunches.

* * *

This time, I don’t dream at all. Not even of Hagan.

When I wake up, I’m expecting pain. I’ve been beaten before, but never this badly. I think the Immortals had instructions to keep me alive, but I’d felt the sick-making crack of a snapped rib, and at least one of my fingers had broken where a stray boot had come down on it. So I open my eyes and keep absolutely still, waiting for the avalanche of agony.

It doesn’t come. I have to breathe in, eventually, and my stomach and chest feel fine. Not numb, just normal. I raise my hand, to look at my mauled fingers, and find them straight and perfectly functional. There are long, pink marks, like freshly healed skin.

Either I’ve been asleep for weeks—which seems unlikely—or there’s magic at work here. Ghul magic, the Well of Life, the Forbidden Well. I taste bile at the back of my throat.

The Emperor and his Immortals seek out all mage-born, for the good of the Blessed Empire, but none are so thoroughly policed as the unfortunates with access to Ghul. In the right hands, the Well of Life can do good. Ghultouched can calm a fever, ease a birth, or keep a cut from festering. Ghul talents can mend broken bones and close wounds. Ghul adepts, it’s rumored, can do almost anything—regrow missing limbs, change a person’s appearance, restore lost youth.

But they can be evil, or make mistakes, just like anyone else. And when you’re toying with such primal forces, disaster follows easily. Far to the southeast, where the greatest city in the world once stood, lurks the Vile Rot, a festering, cancerous testament to the dangerous combination of arrogance and command over life itself. Since that time, Ghul mage-born have been feared, shunned, and executed almost everywhere in the world. The Empire is only slightly more lenient—a few ghultouched, after extensive training, are permitted to operate at the fringes of society, and Ghul talents are taken into the Legions. Ghul adepts are always killed, however, and ghulwitches—untrained, unauthorized Ghul mage-born—are hunted down by the Immortals.

The thought of some rotspawn mucking around with my insides makes my stomach contract, and I have to suppress the urge to vomit. My skin crawls. I breathe deep and swallow hard, trying to assess the situation logically. The Immortals were clearly supposed to take me intact, so in all probability they’ve simply healed me after their snatch squad got carried away. It’s unlikely that they’ve seeded my body with fast-growing tumors, or given me a flesh-rotting plague, or—

Too much. I manage to roll over and push my hair back before I vomit, a thin, sour mix of wine and bile spattering the floor mat. Afterward, wiping my mouth on my sleeve, I feel a little better. Enough to take in my surroundings. I’m dressed in a light brown wrap, something a servant might wear. The room I’m in is small, just big enough for a sleeping pad, but the well-kept floor mats and plastered, painted walls tell me I’m not anywhere in the Sixteenth Ward. The door is open, leading out into a large sitting room, with cushions placed around a low table. The table is set for two, with decanters, glasses, and a bowl of oranges.

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