Truthwitch (The Witchlands #1)

by Susan Dennard

ONE

Everything had gone horribly wrong.

None of Safiya fon Hasstrel’s hastily laid plans for this holdup were unfolding as they ought.

First, the black carriage with the gleaming gold standard was not the target Safi and Iseult had been waiting for. Worse, this cursed carriage was accompanied by eight rows of city guards blinking midday sun from their eyes.

Second, there was absolutely nowhere for Safi and Iseult to go. Up on their limestone outcropping, the dusty road below was the only path to Veñaza City. And just as this thrust of gray rock overlooked the road, the road overlooked nothing but turquoise sea forever. It was seventy feet of cliff pounded by rough waves and even rougher winds.

And third—the real kick in the kidneys—was that as soon as the guards marched over the girls’ buried trap and the firepots within exploded … Well, then those guards would be scouring every inch of the cliffside.

“Hell-gates, Iz.” Safi snapped down her spyglass. “There are four guards in each row. Eight times four makes…” Her face scrunched up. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen …

“It’s thirty-two,” Iseult said blandly.

“Thirty-two thrice-damned guards with thirty-two thrice-damned crossbows.”

Iseult only nodded and eased back the hood of her brown cape. The sun lit up her face. She was the perfect contrast to Safi: midnight hair to Safi’s wheat, moon skin to Safi’s tan, and hazel eyes to Safi’s blue.

Hazel eyes that were now sliding to Safi as Iseult plucked away the spyglass. “I hate to say ‘I told you so’—”

“Then don’t.”

“—but,” Iseult finished, “Everything he said to you last night was a lie. He was most certainly not interested in a simple card game.” Iseult ticked off two gloved fingers. “He was not leaving town this morning by the northern highway. And I bet”—a third finger unfurled—“his name wasn’t even Caden.”

Caden. If … no, when Safi found that Chiseled Cheater, she was going to break every bone in his perfect rutting face.

Safi groaned and banged her head against the rock. She’d lost all of her money to him. Not just some, but all.

Last night had hardly been the first time Safi had bet all of her—and Iseult’s—savings on a card game. It wasn’t as if she ever lost, for, as the saying went, You can’t trick a Truthwitch.

Plus, the winnings off one round alone from the highest-stake taro game in Veñaza City would have bought Safi and Iseult a place of their own. No more living in an attic for Iseult, no more stuffy Guildmaster’s guest room for Safi.

But as Lady Fate would have it, Iseult hadn’t been able to join Safi at the game—her heritage had banned her from the highbrow inn where the game had taken place. And without her Threadsister beside her, Safi was prone to … mistakes.

Particularly mistakes of the strong-jawed, snide-tongued variety who plied Safi with compliments that somehow slipped right past her Truthwitchery. In fact, she hadn’t sensed a lying bone in Chiseled Cheater’s body when she’d collected her winnings from the in-house bank … Or when Chiseled Cheater had hooked his arm in hers and guided her into the warm night … Or when he’d leaned in for a chaste yet wildly heady kiss on the cheek.

I will never gamble again, she swore, her heel drumming on the limestone. And I will never flirt again.

“If we’re going to run for it,” Iseult said, interrupting Safi’s thoughts, “then we need to do so before the guards reach our trap.”

“You don’t say.” Safi glared at her Threadsister, who watched the incoming guards through the spyglass. Wind kicked at Iseult’s dark hair, lifting the wispy bits that had fallen from her braid. A distant gull cried its obnoxious scree, scr-scree, scr-scree!

Safi hated gulls; they always shit on her head.

“More guards,” Iseult murmured, the waves almost drowning out her words. But then louder, she said, “Twenty more guards coming from the north.”

For half a moment, Safi’s breath choked off. Now, even if she and Iseult could somehow face the thirty-two guards accompanying the carriage, the other twenty guards would be upon them before they could escape.

Safi’s lungs burst back to life with a vengeance. Every curse she’d ever learned rolled off her tongue.

“We’re down to two options,” Iseult cut in, scooting back to Safi’s side. “We either turn ourselves in—”

“Over my grandmother’s rotting corpse,” Safi spat.

“—or we try to reach the guards before they trigger the trap. Then all we have to do is brazen our way through.”

Safi glanced at Iseult. As always, her Threadsister’s face was impassive. Blank. The only part of her that showed stress was her long nose—it twitched every few seconds.

“Once we’re through,” Iseult added, drawing her hood back into place and casting her face in darkness, “we’ll follow the usual plan. Now hurry.”

Safi didn’t need to be told to hurry—obviously she would hurry—but she bit back her retort. Iseult was, yet again, saving their hides.

Besides, if Safi had to hear one more I told you so, she’d throttle her Threadsister and leave her carcass to the hermit crabs.

Iseult’s feet hit the gritty road, and as Safi descended nimbly beside her, dust plumed around her boots—and inspiration struck.

“Wait, Iz.” In a flurry of movement, Safi swung off her cape. Then with a quick slash-rip-slash of her parrying knife, she cut off the hood. “Skirt and kerchief. We’ll be less threatening as peasants.”

Iseult’s eyes narrowed. Then she dropped to the road. “But then our faces will be more obvious. Rub on as much dirt as you can.” As Iseult scrubbed her face, turning it a muddy brown, Safi wound the hood over her hair and wrapped the cape around her waist. Once she’d tucked the brown cloak into her belt, careful to hide her scabbards beneath, she too slathered dirt and mud over her cheeks.

In less than a minute, both girls were ready. Safi ran a quick, scrutinizing eye over Iseult … but the disguise was good. Good enough. Her Threadsister looked like a peasant in desperate need of a bath.

With Iseult just behind, Safi launched into a quick clip around the limestone corner, her breath held tight … Then she exhaled sharply, her pace never slowing. The guards were still thirty paces from the buried firepots.