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Read the First 3 Chapters of Inkmistress

Read the First 3 Chapters of Inkmistress
Looking for a sweeping new fantasy—full of romance, action, and mystical creatures? Something that will make you swoon but is also full of brutal choices, blood magic, and vengeful gods? Then you’re going to love today’s first look inside INKMISTRESS by Audrey Coulthurst! It’s about a demigoddess who must decide how far she’s willing to go to protect the girl she loves—and the book is absolutely gorgeous.
We’ve been looking forward to Audrey’s next book since the second we finished OF FIRE AND STARS, and thank the fate forging gods, because this story is set a century earlier in the same world. So if you loves OFAS, get ready to dive deeper into this lush world!! And if you haven’t, well, what are you waiting for?! It’s so good 😍
(Sidenote, the bi rep in this book is A+)
Either way, INKMISTRESS is a beautiful, atmospheric, and action-packed fantasy that we know you’re going to love, so scroll down to start reading now!
 

Chapter 1

When our story began, I thought I knew love.
Love was a mind that moved quickly from one thought to the next, eyes an inimitable blue that lay somewhere between morning glories and glaciers, and a hand that tugged me along as we raced laughing through the woods. Love was the way she buried her hands in my hair and I lost mine in the dark waves of hers, and how she kissed me until we fell in a hot tangle atop the blankets in the back of the cave I called home. Love was the warmth kindled by her touch, lingering in me long after the first snow fell and she had gone for the winter.
Love was what would bring her back to me in spring—and spring had finally begun to wake.
I braided my hair and wound it into a coiled knot, then pulled on my heavy fur-lined boots studded with nails for traction. My satchel hung on a hook beside the door, already packed with supplies to collect ingredients for my tinctures. A gentle wind nudged at the mouth of my cave, no longer carrying the weighty smell of ice and snow, but that of the earth beneath it. My heart quickened with the promise it held, not just of spring, but of her.
Invasya. My Ina.
The long nights of winter had left me forlorn, but soon Ina and other mortals from the village at the base of my mountain would visit with goods to exchange for the potions I brewed to heal them or help their sorrows slip away. The frozen waterfall that had left the bridge slick with ice would dissolve into a muddy rush of snowmelt. Winds strong enough to blow even the most seasoned climbers off the narrow path would ease, gusting from the west instead of the north, pushing away the clouds banked up against the peaks. Even if the villagers were wary of me and my gifts, I looked forward to having others to talk to, instead of singing to myself as I cooked or crafted, or whispering questions only to have them snatched away by the wind, unanswered. Visits from the villagers eased the constant ache left by the death of Miriel, the mortal herbalist who had been my mentor.
“May your death be free of life’s sorrows,” I murmured. Grumpy and exacting as Miriel had been, three years after she’d died, I still missed her. Her absence made me long even more fiercely for things I’d never had, like feasts of summer’s bounty shared with family and friends, or the intimacy of stories told to children in whispers beside the hearth before bed.
Now that she was gone, I often had to remind myself that I belonged on the mountain, alone. Anytime I’d spoken of wanting a family, or living in the village, Miriel had reiterated why I couldn’t. Miriel claimed that when my father, the wind god, had abandoned me to her as a baby, she claimed the earth god spoke to her and gave very clear instructions that I was never to leave. We could go to the village only under the most necessary circumstances, like helping with births or tending wounded livestock. If mortals found out about the magic that could be performed with my blood, they’d hunt me like an animal. Amalska needed an herbalist, I needed training in potion making to understand the magic in my blood, and the gods had chosen this place for me. Truth had been one of the pillars of Miriel’s vows to the earth god, so I knew she’d been honest.
As I grew up, I discovered why it was best I’d mostly been kept apart from others. When mortal children scraped their knees, red flowers didn’t bloom where they bled into the earth. They didn’t have magic Sight that revealed the glow of life in everything alive on the mountain. When the wind whispered through the trees, they didn’t hear music that could be made into melodies sung for the gods. Their blood couldn’t be enchanted to bestow powers on people. And those were just incidental side effects of my true gift—the one I’d been told never to use or reveal. Secrecy made it a burden, yet another thing that isolated me.
I fastened my wool cloak beneath my throat and tossed the satchel across my shoulder, picking up the lightweight staff I’d need for stability as I traversed the mountain. Outside, sunlight filtered through snowy pine branches overhead to dapple the ground in shifting patterns. The snow drip-dropping from the trees had the quality of thousands of muted bells, a song of welcome for the sun. A breeze nipped at my cheeks. The gusts were a gift from my father—his promise of warmer weather soon to come.
“Thank you,” I whispered to the wind, smiling as it caressed my face. Though we had never spoken directly, sometimes the wind god’s touch and the reminders of his presence were all that kept me from being paralyzed by my own loneliness. I sketched his symbol in the air and walked out into the bright morning, following a trail around the side of the mountain. Along my path, clusters of crocus buds pushed out of patches of fresh brown earth that had finally surfaced from beneath the snow.
Halfway up the trail, a white wing flashed over the edge of a bluff high above—the dragon who lived on my mountain had awakened. After a few more flaps and stretches, her wings steadied and she settled into position to sun herself. A shiver passed through me despite the warmth of my cloak. The dragon and I had an uneasy coexistence. We stayed out of each other’s way, though I sometimes left the unusable parts of my kills in places I knew she’d find them. Feeding her was better than feeding the vultures, especially if it increased the chances that she’d leave me and the villagers alone.
Eventually the trail cut to the north near a cliff where snow lay banked in drifts and a frozen stream had created layered icicles down the side. Water now carved through the ice, slowly beginning to open the creek’s spring path down the mountain. With the help of my staff, I stepped carefully over the trickle of water, walking alongside the snowdrifts until they grew smaller—a subtle indication that secrets lay hidden nearby.
I pushed through the snow to follow the face of the cliff, tracing my hand along the stone until it grew hot under my palm, and then I blew on the warmest spot until a crevice opened in the wake of my breath. Heat enveloped me as I sidestepped through the fissure into a hidden cave. A spring gurgled in the back, filling the air with haze. Weak light filtered in from holes and cracks high above, and all around me, fire flowers grew thick and wild in every color, alive with magic, the heart of every blossom a spark in the dim.
The flowers reached for me as I paced through the cave. I trod carefully so as not to crush any blossoms beneath my boots and ran my fingers gently over their petals, feeling the life pulsing in each one. My Sight allowed me as a demigod to sense the life force and magic in everything on the mountain when I chose to look. The red blossoms burned my fingers a little, and the orange and yellow blooms tickled like summer sunlight. The blue was cool to the touch as the snow outside. But I always harvested the purple first. There were the fewest of them, all clustered at the edge of the spring.
I knelt before a purple flower in full bloom and whispered a request of it, telling it of the tincture it would become if it sacrificed itself to me. I took out my silver knife and asked permission to cut it free, but it turned its sparkling face away.
I nodded in respect and turned to the next, and when I asked, it bent its stem into my hand. The touch of the purple petals against my arm made my head spin a little, helping me temporarily forget the hollow ache of loneliness deep in my stomach.
“Thank you,” I said, and sliced the stem. As soon as the stalk was cut, the spark in the center of the flower fizzled out. Even without the flame at its heart, the blossom remained more vibrant than anything that bloomed outside the cave—the purple as rich as the indigo sky just after a summer sunset. I tucked the flower into my basket and smeared a bit of balm over the severed stem.
I asked for a few blossoms of each color, harvesting them and then tucking them into the narrow wooden boxes in my satchel. I took my time, making sure all the plants were healthy and strong. A soft peace came over me with the ritual. Sometimes I felt more kinship with the fire flowers than people. Like me, these flowers lived in seclusion, hidden away from the world. To help mortals, their lives ended sooner—as would mine if I used my true gift.
After emerging from the cave, I shivered in the cooler air and whispered the crack in the mountain closed again. I should have taken advantage of the warmer weather to go to the lake for the water I needed to complete my tinctures, but I still had time. Waiting a few more days or even a week would ensure that the ice had begun to melt. Instead, I hiked back to the south. I couldn’t resist checking for signs that the path to the village had begun to clear.
Farther down the mountain, the trees grew closer together and the snow deeper in the shadows beneath them. I slogged through until I reached the vista, a rocky outcropping that ended in a cliff. Thin clouds hung in the trees like veils on either side of the valley. I froze at the tree line, caught between hope and fear.
A person stood with their back to me, looking down at the valley, waiting.
 

Chapter 2

No one should have been able to make it up the mountain so early. Last time I checked, the path had been buried in snow so thick as to make it invisible, the bridge near the waterfall still encased in ice. But one sole person might have tried to reach me, and this was where I’d told her to meet me when spring came.
“Ina?” I asked.
She turned as I emerged from the trees, pulling down the hood of an indigo cloak that fluttered around her boots in the breeze.
“Asra,” she said, her face lighting up.
Feelings that had lain dormant in me all winter rose as though they had wings.
“You’re back!” I rushed over to throw my arms around her.
We hugged and laughed breathlessly for a few moments, and when we pulled apart, I finally let myself look at her. Ina had changed since last summer. She was taller and a little more chiseled in the cheekbones, even more beautiful. The memories of her I’d held close for moons didn’t do justice to the sight of her straight nose, long flat eyebrows, and the barest hint of a cleft in her chin—the place I used to sometimes put my thumb before I pulled her in for a kiss. Her eyes were the same bottomless blue I remembered, and I never wanted to come up for air.
“Hello, you,” she said. The gentle tone of her voice made a flush rise into my cheeks.
Before I could speak, she pressed a kiss to my lips. Suddenly my insides were in my toes and my head was lost among the stars, all the words I’d saved for her through the dark nights of winter forgotten.
“I came as soon as I could,” she said. “I’ve hardly been able to think of anything else.”
“Me either,” I said, and fell into her arms again. My stomach fluttered like the wings of a butterfly. With the way she made me feel, sometimes I thought she was as magical as the fire flowers. All winter I’d been incomplete, and now I was whole. She gave me hope that I didn’t have to be alone forever, that maybe I could have a place in the community by her side now that Miriel was no longer here to forbid it.
“Why did you come so early? It can’t have been safe.” I examined her for any signs of harm, but she looked as radiant as ever.
“It was a hard winter.” She gestured to the valley.
Far below us, dozens of snow-covered A-frame rooftops poked up on either side of the river, barely visible but for the wisps of smoke rising from their chimneys. On the opposite side of the valley, where the hills were gentler than the sheer cliffs we stood upon, spots of scorched earth dotted the hillside like a disease.
Funeral pyres. Sorrow made a lump rise in my throat. Through the winter I had occasionally smelled smoke, and I had seen one or two pyres on my other trips down to the vista. A few funerals was a normal number for a village of Amalska’s size, but with fog hovering in the valley most mornings, I hadn’t been able to see how many there were until now. What made it worse was that more probably lingered under the most recent dusting of snow.
“There are so many,” I said, my voice nearly breaking. Those were people whose care had been entrusted to me. Unknowingly, I had failed them.
“We lost half the village to fever in the last two moons,” Ina said softly. The strained expression on her face gave away how keenly she felt the deaths.
“No!” That had to be as many as a hundred people. She must have lost friends. Maybe even relatives. A wave of guilt followed. “Is your family all right?”
“For now. They’ve been helping tend the sick, though, so who knows how much longer their luck will hold. We ran out of your tinctures almost eight weeks ago. And of course it’s been impossible to get up here until now. We tried, but one climber broke his leg and another fell to his death near the ice falls. We gave up after that.” Ina’s shoulders sagged.
“Eight weeks?” I was horrified. Even in the case of disease, the villagers should have had plenty of medicines to last the winter. Miriel and I had never left them undersupplied, even in years of weak harvest when they had little to offer in trade.
Guilt tasted bitter in my mouth. I should have moved to the valley last summer, but memories of Miriel’s warnings had held me back. When her time to meet the shadow god had drawn near, I’d pleaded with Miriel to give her blessing for me to join the villagers. If I moved there, I could help deliver babies born out of season, or get access to herbs that bloomed earlier down there than on our mountain. She refused to hear of it, reminding me that the gods had ordained my place in the world and that I needed to be wary of mortals. They would discover my gifts, she said. They would hurt me to help themselves.
But now all I knew was that my obedience had led to the death of half the village.
Ina nodded. “As if that wasn’t bad enough, half a moon ago we received a messenger pigeon from farther south with a report of bandits. Raiders barely waited for the ground to thaw before they attacked one of the villages north of Kartasha.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. Bandits were a summer problem. They traveled when the roads were clear and produce or livestock was easy to steal, not when the snow had barely melted and the nanny goats hadn’t even birthed their kids.
“My parents released a pigeon to the king in hopes of getting some support to fend them off if they come north. His reply said, ‘The crown does not currently have enough resources to support communities not in immediate danger.’” Her expression darkened. “I suppose the fact that our village is on a trade route only open in summer makes us less important. Or worse, dispensable.”
I squeezed her arm gently. “All communities matter. No one is dispensable.”
“You may believe that, but apparently the king doesn’t. The crown has done very little to quell banditry in the south these last few years. It’s gotten bad enough that I’ve been working on my own plans to do something about it if I’m elected elder.”
Her words worried me. Last year’s harvest had been a good one. Oversupplied with food and short on fighting bodies, a village decimated by fever would make a tempting target. If Ina’s parents had told him the whole story, why hadn’t he sent help?
“I can at least give you some potions for any who are still ill. Come home with me?” I extended my arm.
“Of course,” she said. She fell into step beside me, took my hand and gave it a squeeze, but then she let go.
Last summer, she’d hardly let go of me at all. But then again, it had taken time for us to grow close, and perhaps we needed time again. Ina had never been afraid of me as so many of the other villagers were, but she had been visiting the mountain daily for almost a moon before her curiosity about me shifted into something else. I would never forget that night.
We’d been sitting by the bank of a creek that murmured its soft music to us in the dark. I had been telling her the names of all the constellations I knew, from the huntress and her arrow guiding travelers north to the war steed in the west galloping his way across the sky with the seasons. Our conversation had eventually turned to more personal things, and she told me her deepest fear—that she would fail to take the place of her parents as an elder—and I revealed to her my secret—that I wasn’t mortal. After my admission, her fingertips brushed my cheek. I turned to her, surprised, and her mouth found mine—as gentle and inevitable as the way twilight shifts into darkness, her lips still sweet from the plums we’d eaten after dinner.
That had been the first night she stayed with me. I still trembled to think of it, the newness, the way she’d touched me and I her, the awkwardness that quickly fell away as we figured out how our bodies fitted against each other. We’d kissed until we couldn’t keep our eyes open, and in the morning I laughed watching her try to find everything she needed to make a meal to break our fast, stubbornly refusing to let me help. Her passion and determination were as addictive to me now as they had been then.
“Will you stay awhile?” I couldn’t bear the thought of her leaving yet, not with the heaviness of the news she’d brought with her.
She grinned at me sidelong as we walked up the path toward my cave. “I hoped you’d ask.”
When we got home, she sat down on one of the cushions in front of the hearth and took down her hair, unbraiding it until the black waves fell loose around her shoulders. I could hardly stop staring at her long enough to unpack my satchel and carefully stow my fresh picks in the deepest part of the cave, where they’d stay cool and preserved until I was ready to brew tinctures. I’d have to go to the lake for water to make more, but at least I could send Ina home with what remained of last year’s batch.
Ina patted the cushion beside her. Longing bloomed in my chest, burning more brightly than any of the blossoms I’d picked on the mountain. I walked over as though in a trance. How could one human girl hold so much power over a demigod?
“I missed you every day,” Ina said as I sat down.
“Did you?” I asked, and the look in her eyes made me forget what my mouth was for or how my limbs worked or what a thought was shaped like.
“Come closer and I’ll show you how much,” Ina whispered, her voice sweet as cream and honey.
When her warm lips touched mine, I remembered exactly what my mouth was for. The dark cloud of my worries and guilt temporarily receded as her closeness comforted me. She undressed me in front of the hearth, trailing hungry kisses down my neck until desire crashed through me in waves. We retreated to the back of the cave and spent the next hour rediscovering each other, charting new paths across each other’s bodies until they became familiar once again.
Afterward, I lay beneath thick piles of blankets as Ina ran her fingers through my hair, my worries creeping back in. It was mid­afternoon and already my eyelids were growing heavy. Yet I couldn’t afford to sleep, not now, not when the people of Amalska needed me.
“I should get those tinctures ready for you. You’ll need to leave before the sun gets close to the hills.” Emptiness crept in at the thought of her departure.
“Yes. My parents are under the impression that I’m out meditating and asking the spirit god for guidance. I didn’t tell them I was coming up here.”
“But what if something had happened?” I sat up. Her audacity shocked me.
Ina propped herself up on an elbow. “I told a friend where I went just in case. I might get a scolding from my parents, but they’ll be grateful for the tinctures. Besides, I wanted to see you.” She put a warm hand on my back, drawing shapes until gooseflesh rose on my arms.
I couldn’t help a small smile. “You shouldn’t disobey them. They already disapproved of how much time you spent up here last summer.”
“Bah,” Ina said. “I never heard you complaining.”
“Of course not,” I said. I wanted to tell her that no moment with her was wasted—that I loved her—but I bit back the words before they could escape. We had problems to deal with first. If we could make it to summer, banish the fever, and find a way to hold off the bandits . . . then there might be room for declarations and promises. I hoped there would be.
“Do your parents have a plan for handling the bandits if they attack?” I asked. I needed to be prepared if they expected me to play a role.
“They want to join forces with the nearby villages, like Nobrosk and Duvey. Once the fever has passed, they’re planning to invite some of them to help protect Amalska. We have land and goods to offer them in exchange, and stopping the bandits before they get farther north would benefit the other villages, too.”
“But what do you have to offer that isn’t already being traded?” It didn’t sound like enough. Many of the mountain villages shared or exchanged resources already.
Ina’s expression became guarded in a way I’d never seen before. Nervousness prickled across my skin like the bite of a stinging nettle.
“There’s one other thing.” She lay down on her back, staring up at the uneven rock of the ceiling.
An uncomfortable silence built between us. I pulled the covers tightly around myself as if they might shield me from whatever she was going to say.
“My parents want me to get married this summer,” she said. “To a boy from Nobrosk.”
 

Chapter 3

With Ina’s words my heart froze in my chest.
“I came to tell you as soon as I could,” she said, as though it would help. “His name is Garen. His manifest is a stag.” Her hesitant expression held none of the sorrow or disgust I would have liked to see. I didn’t know how to absorb her words.
“Oh,” I said, the only response I could manage. We’d never really talked about boys. Before Ina had entered my life, I’d nursed a hopeless crush or two on handsome hunters who had come to me and Miriel for tinctures—but ever since Ina I’d had no desire for anyone else.
“He arrived with the last fall caravan and stayed the winter. He’s the son of Nobrosk’s elders. My parents are pleased by the thought of a match that will facilitate trade and help defend us from the bandits.” She spoke the words with a familiarity that made it sound as though her fate was already decided.
My stomach clenched. All winter I had waited for her. For weeks I’d been making plans for the things we could do when the weather warmed again. An entire shelf in the back of my cave was devoted to the gifts for her I’d crafted to stay busy during our time apart—a polished bowl made of burled wood, honey hazelnut candy, and intricately braided deer-hide sandals.
Now I saw our future together vanishing more quickly than the melting snow.
“What do you think of him?” I asked, hoping that part of why she’d come was to escape, to tell me there was no one she loved more than me—to ask me to save her.
“Well, he has the grace of his manifest. He’s been quite respectful of my parents . . . and of me.” She glanced at me as though looking for permission to go on.
I kept my face in a mask that belied the churning in my stomach.
“He seems kind. And gentle,” she said. The words stole my breath in spite of her careful tone. There hadn’t been any promises between us at the end of last summer, but I never expected this. Hadn’t she just run back into my arms? My bed? How could she do that and now be telling me this? Already I could picture her on the arm of a handsome boy on her wedding day, a wreath of summer flowers in her hair. Jealousy consumed me as I imagined them taking their vows, sealing them with a kiss, building a family together that I had no place in.
“But how can you marry if you haven’t found your own manifest?” I asked, my voice hollow. I couldn’t sense the presence of a second soul inside her. Though she was seventeen winters old like me, she still needed to come of age as Zumordan mortals did, by forming a permanent magical bond with an animal. After the manifestation ritual and the blessing of whichever god oversaw it, she would forever be able to take the shape of that one animal at will. Manifesting would bring her fully into adulthood and make her suitable to become an elder someday—something she’d always wanted.
It would also make her eligible to marry.
“Well . . . they said they’ll accept the betrothal anyway, upon the condition that I manifest in time for a midsummer wedding. But that’s the other reason I’m here. I hoped you might know a way to help me find it now,” she said tentatively.
I looked away, upset. How could she ask me this? She should have told me right away, not pretended things were the same between us. Not reminded me what she could make me feel before asking for favors that might take her away from me forever.
“Please,” she added when I didn’t respond.
“How do you expect me to do that?” I scoffed, pulling on my clothes and striding over to the fireplace to add another split log.
“I don’t know. A potion? A spell? There must be something. My parents have had me fast and meditate. Make offerings to every god. And of course last summer I was supposed to be searching the mountain for my manifest, seeking the ear of the gods, but there were other things . . .” She trailed off, distress in her voice.
I remembered those “other things” all too well. I had known she was supposed to be spending the summer in search of her manifest, but back then it hadn’t seemed important, not when we were alone, not when she lay beside me, tracing patterns over my bare skin.
“I need to think.” Emotions rolled through me too quickly to name.
“I’m sorry, Asra. I know it’s a lot to ask. But I don’t know what else to do.” Fabric rustled as Ina pulled on her clothes, fingers deftly retying the laces on the sides of her gray woolen overdress. She followed me to the kitchen, taking a seat on one of the crude chairs at the dining table.
I knew of only one way Ina had not tried to seek and take her manifest, an arcane ritual that Miriel had told me about during one of her many lectures on the dangers of mixing blood and magic.
That lesson had been a warning, not a suggestion.
I cast a glance at Ina, whose brow furrowed as though she felt some kind of pain.
“Are you all right?” I asked. Even with the mess she’d laid at my feet, I couldn’t stand to see her suffer.
“My stomach is a little upset.” She spoke softly. “I haven’t eaten since before I started the climb up here.”
“I’ll get you something to settle it.” I sighed. It was no wonder her stomach hurt with all the problems weighing on her. I removed a half loaf of dense oat bread from the oven where I kept it, and pulled away the waxed cotton wrap. My hands shook a little as I cut a thick slice, making the knife slip. I jerked my hand away and stuck my finger in my mouth, dread rising until I was sure I tasted no blood. Gratitude washed through me when my tongue touched only the jagged edge of a fingernail I must have nicked with the blade. It might have been fitting if I bled, thanks to the news Ina had brought me, but it also wasn’t safe. Unless I bled with purpose and gave direction to the magic in my blood, anything could happen.
Sometimes the blood magic seethed inside me as if seeking a way to escape, like it was unsatisfied with the smaller purposes for which I used it. Enhancing tinctures didn’t seem to be enough to satisfy the power, and I hadn’t practiced any greater enchantments since Miriel passed; they required a guiding hand and a willing host. Now I had no one trusted or skilled enough to paint with my blood to lend them my Sight, shielding, or ability to borrow magic from other living things.
Without using those powers, sometimes I felt like my blood was begging me to write with it—the one thing I’d sworn never to do again.
The memory of what I had done that one time twisted inside me like a blade, even now. Though it had been eight years since I took up the quill to use my true gift, I still feared the power. I knew without having to test it that I could still dictate the future or the past by writing in my blood.
Sometimes I felt the threads of fate twisting around me, tempting me to shape them into something different, but the price was too high: dictating the future made me age more rapidly, and changing the past could only be done at the expense of my life. Given the hundreds of years I was meant to live as a demigod, it was impossible to know how much each word I wrote in blood cost me, but I remembered too well the agony of time being stripped away from my life.
No one but Miriel knew I was a bloodscribe. Not even Ina.
I passed Ina the bread on a plate with a jar of honey and some butter and sat down across from her, my own stomach now uneasy, too.
“Please, Asra. If there’s anything you can do, it would mean so much. Our village might depend on this.” The desperate note in Ina’s voice tugged at the part of me that would do anything for her. But it wasn’t my place to interfere. Manifests belonged to the gods. They were the only powerful magic the gods granted to mortals other than the monarch.
“Have you settled on the animal you wish to take? Or have the gods provided any guidance at all?” I asked. In a kingdom where the throne was always won by combat to the death, strength mattered, even in small settlements like Amalska. Village elders—and our monarch—always manifested as creatures that inspired respect. Or fear. Usually both. Affinities for certain animals or gods seemed to often run in families, as much gifts of blood as choice.
“I tried the bear, like my father, and the puma, like my mother, but I don’t feel an affinity for them—or anything else—no matter what I try,” she said, her voice nearly breaking with frustration.
“Then they must not be the right animals,” I said. We’d already discussed this the summer before, though she hadn’t been as anxious about it then.
“I know they’re not. I’ve prayed to all the gods, but none of them have spoken to me or sent me any signs. I have so many plans for our village, so many things I want to do if I’m able to earn elder status.” She spread the butter on her bread with such force she almost tore a hole through it.
“Like marry a boy you barely know?” I said, my tone flat. I thought I mattered to her more than that. In the dark of winter nights, I had even occasionally let myself dream of asking for her hand and building a family, perhaps taking in orphans from our own or other villages since I couldn’t have children of my own, thanks to my hybrid nature.
“You know I never thought about marriage. Mostly I want to protect and grow our village. Maybe if my animal form is powerful enough, we won’t have to make the alliance with Nobrosk. Maybe there will be enough of us to fight off the bandits ourselves.” Her voice rose with hope.
I looked up. Was she saying what I thought she was?
“And will you still marry Garen, if it isn’t necessary?” I asked. I shouldn’t have let my willingness to help her depend on it when the remaining lives in the village might be at stake, but I needed the answer.
“Perhaps not,” she said, setting down the remains of her bread and taking my hand. Her slender fingers wove together with mine, her touch and her words filling me with uncertainty. I couldn’t tell what she wanted. Maybe she didn’t even know.
“I’m going to need some time to think about all this,” I said. Her return had brought light back to my life and just as quickly plunged me into deeper darkness.
“Of course. I’ll appreciate anything you can do. You’ve always been so good to me, and I wanted to ask someone I trusted, someone who might have other ideas besides telling me to pray or fast or go outside naked and howl with the wolves.” She rolled her eyes.
“Surely no one suggested that.” My mouth twitched in the barest hint of a smile.
“I just want to have a say over my own future. If I don’t manifest, I’ll never be able to become an elder. I won’t be able to do anything to protect Amalska from bandits. I can’t watch my family and my village suffer.” Passion darkened the sapphire of her eyes.
I knew what she meant, because my protectiveness of her was equally fierce. I also understood what it was like to want a choice over one’s own future—not that I’d ever had one. It was fairly rare for someone not to manifest eventually, but she was definitely overdue.
“I’m not sure there’s anything I can do,” I said. It wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t want to give her false hope. Besides the arcane ritual Miriel had told me about, I knew only one other way to help Ina; I could dictate her fate and write her manifestation in my blood. The thought made me shudder.
“I should go before it gets much colder,” Ina said, her voice gentle. “I’ll come back soon. I want every moment with you I can get. At least until I manifest . . . if that ever happens.”
“And if you don’t?” I asked, my voice hardly more than a whisper.
“I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll take up sewing undergarments, like the last girl in our village who failed to manifest,” she said. Her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. As always, she took a lighthearted tone when she most wanted to hide her fear. My heart ached. She cared for her people and deserved whatever life she wanted.
Last summer she’d told me about her ambitions for Amalska—a multi-village midsummer trade festival, a better network of messengers for winter, and ideas about how we might export lake ice to the south or even into the kingdom of Mynaria in the west. She was too bold and passionate to be content on the outskirts of town, relegated to second-class citizenry without a manifest.
I packed a canvas bag for her, carefully wrapping the tinctures in cloth to protect them.
“Garen must return to Nobrosk with my answer to his proposal as soon as the roads clear,” Ina said as she pulled on her indigo cloak.
“That can’t be more than another week or two,” I said, feeling faint. Snow would melt sooner in the valley than it did up here. I needed to buy myself a little more time. “Promise me you won’t make a decision before the next community meeting. Come back before then and I’ll have some ideas about how to help you.”
“Oh, thank you, Asra!” Ina rushed over and threw her arms around me.
I took a breath, catching a whiff of lavender that lingered in her hair—dried lavender I’d given her when she told me how much trouble she had falling asleep most nights. The painful familiarity of it deepened my confusion. Did she share any of my hopes for the future, or did she only want my help to forge her own way without me?
Once the sun had set and the winds grew biting and sharp, her loss felt colder to me than ever before. If I did nothing, she could be cast out for failing to manifest, but if I helped her, it might lead to her marrying someone else. I didn’t know what to do. At least if I tried to help, perhaps there would be more choices for her—and a chance for us. She belonged with me, didn’t she? She could become a village elder with me by her side. She didn’t need to marry Garen—not if I could find a better way to protect the village, not if we could find a better reason for Nobrosk to support Amalska. A common enemy should have been enough.
Either way, I had less than a week until the community meeting to figure out what I was able and willing to do for her.

 


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