Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee

ONE


The earth is black with last night’s rain—a perfect morning for shadows.

When I arrive at my mentor’s tower door, my damp gloves barely brush the heavy wood before it flies open. Its half-dozen locks jangle and clack noisily. For a blind woman whose eyes are always concealed behind a scarf, Kendara’s face can convey an impressive amount of disdain.

“Sirscha Ashwyn, you thoughtless dolt,” she says, her voice low and gravelly. “Took you long enough.” She used to speak more gently when I was younger. Maybe that’s why the sound of it still makes me smile, even when she’s insulting me.

“I was only gone for an hour,” I say, shutting the door behind me.

Kendara snorts as she returns to the chair by the open balcony. There’s a white circle painted into the balcony’s floor, large enough to fit two battling opponents. I’ve earned more wounds than I can count in that circle, but this tower is the ideal place to conduct our training, high away from the watchful eyes of the palace. A dagger lies on the seat of her chair, and she picks it up as smoothly as if she can see. Sitting, she tests the blade’s edge with the thick pad of her thumb.

To a stranger, she is a woman descending into old age, her hair gone white save for a few stubborn streaks of black. Age spots speckle the deep bronze of her skin, which is a couple of shades darker than my own. But she is far from infirm. The dagger she handles and the weapons that hang from her wall aren’t decorative. She is the queen’s Shadow, and for the past four years, my secret mentor.

“Would have taken me half the time,” she grumbles, reaching for the whetstone that rests on the floor. “And without the need to show off.”

My nose wrinkles as I remove my gloves. Opening my satchel, I dig inside for the banner I appropriated from the city’s southern watchtower. I may have also waved at the tower guards while scaling the walls.

“I wasn’t showing off.” I’ve learned to stop being surprised—and to stop denying—when Kendara knows things she has no business knowing. “I was just having a bit of fun.”

“The Shadow does not reveal herself for any reason. What would be the point, then?”

I hold out the banner. “I’m not the Shadow yet,” I say with an emphasis on yet and the hope that she’ll take the hint.

“And you won’t be if you keep behaving like a compulsive twit.” The whetstone clatters to the floor as she snatches the banner out of my hand. She stalks across the room, weaving neatly around a table, and flings the silver moon of Evewyn into the flames of her hearth.

“What are you doing, you daft hag?” I shout, dashing after her.

The flames take a second to catch, the banner still damp from the rain. But quickly enough, fire sears through the thin fabric, sparking blue from the spidersilk threads of the moon. Dark smoke billows up the chimney. The smell singes my nostrils, and I try to wave it away, toward the open balcony.

“Idiot girl,” Kendara mumbles as she sets down the dagger. She opens a cupboard that hangs skewed on the wall. “I don’t want that thing in here.” Cursing me under her breath, she rummages through the cupboard’s overflowing contents.

I glance back at the hearth and the ruined remains of the banner. Grudgingly, I see her point. Once, Evewyn’s banners had flown a white falcon clutching a branch of plum blossoms. But when the queen succeeded the throne eight years ago, she changed the emblem to a silver moon, the symbol of the Pale Twin, harbinger of ill fortune.

“Then why did you send me to retrieve it?” I ask. Smoke lingers in the room, a dingy haze that stings my eyes and tickles my throat. Kendara is still preoccupied, so I move toward the balcony where the air is clearer.

From this height, the capital of Vos Talwyn is an enormous sprawl of stone, statues, and curling green rooftops. Beyond the city’s walls, the land extends south like lush brocade stitched with the golden threads of morning. A shadowy ribbon against the horizon draws my eye eastward. Even from this distance, a shiver slithers down my spine. The Dead Wood mars the eastern border like the puckered, blackened edges of burned fabric.

“I told you to steal the banner from the watchtower,” Kendara says, drawing my attention again. I return to sit near the hearth as she withdraws something small from the cupboard. “I didn’t tell you to bring it to me.”

“Well, now I can’t even put it back,” I say, but our bickering is forgotten when she places a bracelet on the table before me. With a quick glance at Kendara, who nods to confirm that I can touch it, I trace my finger along the designs carved into the jewelry. The smooth texture glistens like white jade. “What is it made of?”