Chapter 1: Sweet Rolls to Die For CHAPTER 1 Sweet Rolls to Die For
When Mateo stepped out of his room at the inn, all he could feel was death. It was a scent coming off the scuffed wooden walls, from beneath the floorboards with their threadbare carpet runners. Death was a shadow in the chatter of servants emerging from their rooms and a sour note in the scent of honey and cream-filled sweet rolls coming from the kitchen.
He took in a deep breath, as if he could latch on to the fleeing details of the world where he was alive instead of slowly rotting away into nothing. If he ignored it, maybe it would go away. His father had always made the nothing go away before.
I’m not going away, the nothing said. I only just found you.
Mateo started down the hallway, his humors churning with discomfort at the hollow voice. The nothing hadn’t always spoken to him. It had started with a hiss just after he’d woken up in the carriage with his father, the dust of Patenga’s collapsed tomb still on his coat. Now, even walking down the inn’s narrow hallway felt as if he were trapped in a spotlight on a stage, hundreds of little eyes peering up at him from a darkness that had gnawed at his humors, his muscle and bone. Mateo had always believed that slow drain of energy had been wasting sickness burning through his aura, but now he couldn’t un-know.
It was… a thing. A nothing.
A nothing that was suddenly aware of him, watching him, occasionally commenting on his choice of dress, and pushing energy toward him instead of sucking it away, lacing the air around him with rot.
Mateo wasn’t sure it was a fair exchange if it meant he was already dead.
Mateo’s toe caught on the stained rug just before he got to the stairs, almost sending him down them headfirst. Heart racing, he blinked at the narrow passage, harsh beams of morning light touching each stair he would have hit—his knees on that second stair, then his head and neck on the fourth, his spine on the tenth, as if the light itself wanted to break him into little pieces. Calsta, the sky goddess, set on destroying an abomination.
Chin thrust forward, he started down, shrugging off the light as it washed over him.
A month before Mateo had been at the edge of a new beginning, a new life to replace the one that had been gnawed to pieces. He and his father had finally located an undisturbed shapeshifter tomb with the Basist-made healing compound, caprenum, sitting at the bottom, just waiting to heal the wasting disease that plagued him and half the Warlord’s Devoted.
They’d dug and dug, dodged traps, lost workers. Then his father had introduced him to Lia. Mateo had brought her down into the tomb with them the night they’d broken into the shapeshifter’s burial chamber to get the caprenum—which turned out to be the shape shifter’s very own sword.
Are you stomping? the voice asked. Did the stairs do something to you, or are you always this delightful?
Mateo caught himself stepping lightly onto the last stair, then made himself stomp the rest of the way to the kitchen, reveling in the feel of energy bursting inside him, then disgusted with himself because now he knew where that energy came from. He slammed open the kitchen door, the last barrier between him and the heavenly scents of Hilaria’s cooking, and couldn’t stop his mind ranging out to touch the bits of metal and stone in the room, like even more potential energy just waiting for his signal.
For the first time, using his power like this didn’t make him dizzy. He didn’t stumble, didn’t faint. His feet were there, squarely in the world, and suddenly nothing could stop him from doing what he liked.
Not even the hole inside him come to life.
I’m not a hole, the voice whispered. And I wasn’t going to stop you eating your weight in sugar anyway.
Even the sweet rolls smelled like decay.
Mateo gave the maid a dignified nod, then grabbed a plate from the rack of dishes she’d been drying, surprised when she gave a perturbed squeak and jumped out of his way. As if somehow, for the first time in his life, he was someone to be wary of.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” He gave her a flourishing little bow that would have made Lia smirk at him.
“No, of course not, sir.” The maid shrank back against the wall, keeping one eye on him even as she continued drying dishes.
Mateo carefully checked the wide kitchen for Hilaria before stepping in any farther and only found raw fowl trussed and ready to be roasted on the wood-topped island at the center, the back counters filled with vegetables and roots for stew. Hilaria’s tray of sweet rolls was shoved onto the counter just by the door out to the stables, topped with snowy cream and glistening with raspberry glaze.
Mateo slid two sweet rolls onto his plate.
Just as he began to lick his fingers, the door swung open and whacked him in the back of the legs.
“Mateo Montanne, you entafolin!” Hilaria was on him before he could run for the stairs, the maid blocking the door with both hands clamped over her mouth, looking between him and the terror Hilaria had probably made of her life for the two days their party had been camped at the inn. Hilaria swatted at Mateo’s plate, knocking one of the sweet rolls back onto the tray, narrowly missing his shoulder. “You get your grubby hands away—”
Mateo ducked the next swat, pushing past her through the courtyard door, gratified that he’d managed to keep hold of the one sweet roll. Hilaria’s food was to die for, but sometimes it seemed as if death was the only payment she’d accept for consuming it.
Once he made it through the door, Mateo snaked into the hubbub of servants carrying trunks, saddling horses, and hitching wagons and carriages. He ducked behind their head hostler, Harlan, even as Hilaria shouted from the kitchen door. Harlan cleared his throat, pushing Mateo down an inch lower as he scanned the organized mess with an absurdly casual air, as if he weren’t trying to hide a young man and his stolen raspberry cream behind his spindly legs.
“She’s going to gut you one of these days,” the old hostler murmured once Hilaria had shouted her way across the courtyard, letting Mateo stand up. “But not today if you get into the carriage quick.”
“You’d think she’d be flattered.” Mateo lifted the roll to his mouth to take another bite, freezing when he caught sight of a small carriage out front, the door hanging open. A shock of coppery hair showed through the window, the occupant arguing loudly with the servant trying to close her inside. “Where’s the other carriage, Harlan?”
Harlan’s face didn’t change, a little too close to read. “Master Montanne sent it on ahead of us the day we got here. Didn’t you notice?”
Mateo swore, shoving another bite into his mouth and looking around for a place to hide. His stomach lurched as he looked down at his coat, the lacy front dribbled all over with glaze, the bright raspberry red dripping from his buttons like blood.
There had been a lot of blood down in the tomb. All from that boy on the ground, a sword in his gut, impaled just the way the shapeshifter’s skeleton had been.
Knox, the voice hissed.
A sword just like the one they’d stolen from the tomb that Tual had bundled up and dragged behind his carriage in its own special wagon—a sword that was supposed to save Mateo’s life. Mateo wasn’t sure why the caprenum sword they’d stolen from Patenga’s tomb needed a whole wagon to itself, but Tual had kept him and everyone else in their company from peeking under the tarp, as if touching the sword before the right time would ruin everything. But his father couldn’t expect him to share a carriage with Aria Seystone. She was just like Lia, only smaller and slightly less good at violence.
Mateo shoved the last of the roll into his mouth, icing dribbling down his lip. “Saddle Bella for me, would you?” he mumbled to Harlan around the lump of pastry.
Tual appeared at the inn’s main doors, his sun hat tipped. He was all smiles and banter as he crossed to check under the tarp covering the wagon where the shapeshifter sword was. Once he’d resecured the canvas, Tual walked toward the little carriage, Aria growling insults from inside. Mateo ducked down even farther, his stomach swirling with bile.
“….riding alone probably isn’t the best option.” Harlan was still talking, and Mateo hadn’t heard a word. “Didn’t they tell you about the attacks, boy? That’s why we stayed at the inn for two days despite your father being in a fury to get home. Even he couldn’t brush off finding bodies in the road.”
“Bodies?” Mateo turned to look at the hostler only to catch sight of Hilaria storming from the kitchen yet again, both her fists clenched around the tray of sweet rolls to offer to the company. She made straight for Tual despite servants grabbing at the tray left and right and presented him with the last one, which Tual took with a bow, then handed it in to the carriage’s single occupant.
It flew back out quick enough, landing in the dirt at Hilaria’s feet. Mateo cleared his throat, turning back to Harlan, vaguely horrified about the waste of a coveted sweet roll. “What do you mean they’ve been finding bodies?” His mind flicked back to the terrifying girl who’d been at the bottom of Patenga’s tomb, the one who’d made vines burst out of the earth and grasp at him like snakes. Had she managed to follow them somehow? Father had said she might.
“The first night, it was… well, a Devoted of all things. On the road.”
“Something killed a Devoted?” Mateo paused.
“Yes. Completely white and shriveled, he was, like he’d been drained of blood. And there were bites….” Harlan looked down. “We thought it was a coincidence coming across him on the road. But then we started seeing animals in a similar condition near the camp. And then last night…”
“Last night what?” Mateo leaned forward.
“Well, Master Montanne’s getting us out quick enough, but it won’t bring back the kitchen boy.”
Mateo’s chest clenched a hair tighter. He looked just beyond the inn out into the dense wall of foliage, the road cutting through it like a wound. They’d be safe soon. They’d be back at home where no one could get to them.
No one except Lia, who’d stop at nothing to get her sister. A shudder trilled down his back. Lia Seystone was not above killing. The Beildan girl he’d seen at the dig wouldn’t be either. Mateo’s mind flashed again to the shadowy figure in the tomb, energy singing like poison in the air around her, Tual answering with a terrible magic that stank of murder….
No. Mateo’s jaw clenched. No. She isn’t my sister, and I’m not…
You’re not what? the little voice sang. You’re not like your father, the one person who loved you before I found you? If you weren’t like him, then you’d be dead.
Dead. The thought echoed in his head. He hadn’t chosen to turn shapeshifter. He hadn’t wanted it, didn’t want it now. But that couldn’t change the sacrifice Tual had helped him make, killing an innocent girl to save his own life, even if it had made him into…
Mateo breathed the word in and then out again. People were the choices they made, not the labels other people gave them. He was what he was. He was alive. And he would make do with what life he had left.
No one could fault him that.
“Are… you all right?” Harlan’s voice was concerned.
Mateo looked down to find the plate in shards between his two hands, blood on his fingers. He dropped the broken pieces like a dead snake, recoiling back a step. Hilaria was very animatedly speaking to his father by the carriage, and the barely contained glee on Tual’s face made Mateo fairly certain that it had to do with a stolen sweet roll. His father turned a fraction and caught Mateo’s eye across the courtyard, a guffaw so painfully held in that Mateo knew Tual would be cackling about it later.
He’d thought his father had finally decided to be open with him, to stop keeping secrets. How could Tual have known about these killings and not told him?
“Mateo?” Harlan was still standing there, worried.
“I’m fine.” Mateo wiped his bloody fingers on his coat, flinching when red smeared across the fabric to match the raspberry. This coat had been his favorite back at the university—just the right number of ruffles to be interesting without being too much, the shade of green perfectly complementing his light brown skin. He started toward the stable, Harlan twitching along behind him as if he’d been attached with string. “I’m going to ride, Harlan. Nothing is going to attack us in broad daylight.”
“They look almost like auroshe kills,” Harlan murmured.
Mateo’s stomach roiled, the sweet roll threatening to come back up.
“With the first body being a Devoted and… well, I think we both know auroshes don’t roam free this far south. Honestly, I’m surprised we don’t hear more tales of those monsters killing their riders. If you are determined to take Bella, keep your eyes open. There could be more of them following us.”
“Devoted or feral auroshes?”
“Either.” Harlan shrugged.
Mateo turned toward the open stable doors. It wasn’t the Warlord he was worried about. She would at least try to talk to them before gutting him. The Warlord thought they had something she wanted: a cure to wasting sickness. Auroshe kills and dead Devoted on the road sounded more like Lia with her foul steed prowling after them. It wasn’t enough that her actual job… magical calling… gods-given purpose in the world was to kill people like Mateo and his father. Tual had gone and kidnapped her younger sister.
Because he wants me to live. The words unspooled inside him, his own this time. I want to live.
Mateo strode into the light-starved stables, straight for Bella’s stall. She gave an excited whinny when she saw him. He ran a hand down her neck, grateful when she buried her nose in his chest. His heart slowed a beat. But only the one.
If the kills out there weren’t Lia’s doing, he’d eat his own oversized sun hat. A sick feeling of betrayal welled deep in his chest.
Tual had blackmailed her into an engagement, encouraging Mateo to get to know her, to give her a chance. And Mateo had accidentally done it. He’d talked to her, almost been killed with her, stolen an auroshe with her, saved her from the Warlord, and then he’d thought that maybe…
He’d wanted to…
He’d even thought that she might want…
That someone could see past the many deaths of Mateo Montanne to him had always been an impossible thing until that day in his father’s office with Lia. She’d stayed. She’d talked to him. She’d listened. She was smart. She was funny, she was beautiful, she was exactly what he…
Mateo forced the thought of Lia’s burnished hair, her freckles, her blue eyes from his mind, turning to take the saddle from a hostler and place it on Bella’s back. The maybes that surrounded Lia had been so new and unexpected and hopeful that they’d felt forbidden, secret, delicious. But then she’d seen the reliefs in Patenga’s tomb the same moment he had.
She’d been Tual’s plan all along—Lia plus a caprenum sword. All magic required sacrifice, and the sacrifice that had made Mateo into the creature he was had been botched, tearing a hole inside him instead of filling him to the brim with power. The magical caprenum he’d been searching for with his father for years was just the vessel—the knife, the sword, the ax to seal the sacrifice of the person you loved most.
Because that’s what Mateo needed to survive—a new sacrifice to replace the old one that hadn’t worked.
It put him in a difficult place. How could he fall in love with Lia Seystone knowing it was all to keep his own heart beating at the expense of hers? And how could he persuade her to love him back as the oaths required when she now knew exactly what the end would look like for her? Dead on the end of a shapeshifter’s sword.
But without Lia, Mateo would continue to die bit by bit from the hole the transformation had left inside him, a hole that had to be filled with something. Someone.
All magic came from sacrifice. It was only in the last month that he understood it was sacrificed love—a love realized, bonded, solidified, then torn asunder—that could make something as powerful as a shapeshifter. And if Mateo wanted to live, he had to make that sacrifice himself, the right way.
Mateo finished pulling the buckles tight and stood. Lia would come, but it wouldn’t be with an open heart. Maybe she’d already gone back to the Warlord and would come with an entire Devoted army.
She’s not with the Warlord, the little voice giggled. She’s with your sister.
Halfway to sticking his foot in the stirrup, Mateo faltered, falling forward. Bella snorted, her head twisting back to look at him reproachfully. Lia’s with… are you sure?
I think they’ve formed the first official “I Hate Mateo Montanne” club.
Mateo’s insides went cold. Gods above, couldn’t you have said something earlier?
Why does Lia scare you so much? it said, ignoring his question. Lia Seystone is just a girl. She’s made of muscles and energy and toenails and hair, and worms will eat her face just as quickly as they would anyone else’s. As fast as they would have eaten you if I hadn’t been there.
I didn’t ask for my father to make me kill you, he thought furiously at the nothing, but then turned the fury back on himself for engaging with it at all.
I’m not nothing, and I’m not an it, the little voice hissed, and Mateo could feel the shape of her underneath the helpless whisper she’d been using with him, like a monstrous mass of sinew, bone, and claws flexing from behind its little-girl mask. My name is Willow. And if you know what’s good for you, you’d be worrying more about the other one. Her voice broke. Knox never would let me have her, even when I starved. She would have fixed everything, but she ruined it instead.
I am worried about the other one. Mateo mounted Bella and steered her out into the courtyard, past the little carriage, the wagons, the life that had been so kind to him these last eight years. Running from the one he’d forgotten. Tual had told him in the carriage as they’d ridden away from the tomb that his sister had spent her whole life looking for him.
But even if that were true, how had Willow known?
Mateo cleared his throat, kicking Bella even faster, pushing the name away. The thing in his head didn’t get a name. It didn’t exist.
I’m so hungry, Willow sighed. Her voice quieted, shriveling down to almost nothing. You’re hungry too, so you know how it feels. You’ll feed me, won’t you, Mateo?
Mateo shivered at the sound of his name made from thorns and ice. Because he did know how that hunger felt.
He did want to live.
And nothing was going to stop him, not Hilaria and her sweet rolls, not blood in the cuts on his hands, not Aria Seystone swearing when she thought people could see her and sobbing into her pillow when she thought they couldn’t. Not his sister, whatever monstrous thing she’d become.
Not Lia and her red curls, her auroshe, and her sword.
If I tell you more about what they’re doing, will you stop calling me a thing? Willow asked.
But Mateo couldn’t let himself listen to a ghost—who even knew why she was inside him, what she wanted, and what she’d take from him? Because that’s all people ever did. Take.
Keeping his eyes open for the rocky formations that marked the hidden path to the caves that would take him home, Mateo kicked Bella out onto the road, thinking only of the wind in his hair and the sun on his face because it was touching him, making him as real, as important, as alive as anyone else in the company, no matter the scent of death in his nose.
He wanted to live.