City of Spells (Into the Crooked Place #2) by Alexandra Christo

PROLOGUE

Vea

VEA AKINTOLA DIDN’T WANT to die, but people hardly ever got a choice in that.

Death was a monster in a world of magic, and unlike other monsters, it didn’t lurk in the shadows or hide where you never thought to check. It stood out in the open, where you could always see it.

It let you know that it was there, that it was waiting, and that it would come for you.

Vea cradled Malik in her arms and let his tiny fingers wrap around hers. He held on to her like she was a secret he wanted to keep for himself.

“It’s time,” her mother said.

Vea nodded. Her mother was always prompt, even when it came to killing her.

“Are you ready?” Vea’s mother asked, swooping her hair into a long graying braid that trailed down the staves on her arms. Her curls flicked at the ends, refusing to be properly tamed, escaping wherever possible.

Vea’s mother had a magic in her that was hard to pinpoint. It was in every part of her, from her white eyes to the scars that looked like puzzles across her familiar face. She looked gentle and harsh, brave and fearful, and very much like a mother, in that she stared at Vea like she’d better get a move on, lest she be late to her own funeral.

“I’m ready,” Vea said, at the same time that Malik said, “Here we goooooo.”

“Will there be magic?” he asked.

Malik was only five and so often didn’t understand what was going on.

“Lots and lots,” Vea said, tickling his stomach until his laughter carried into the wind.

She didn’t tell him that afterward the magic would disappear and he would be left empty.

Hollow, but safe.

She focused on the safe part and chose not to think too much about what it might be like for him to grow up not knowing anything about all the little parts of himself and why they ticked and tocked the way that they did.

Vea’s mother opened the door to the tree house and they stepped inside. Vea caught sight of her eldest daughter, Saxony, in the forest, and clutched on to Malik tighter, as if hugging him would be the same as hugging her.

She hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye.

Not even to her husband, Bastian, who she loved dearly and who loved her back just as much—maybe twice as much—and so definitely couldn’t be trusted to kill her.

Vea’s mother was different.

Mothers could do things nobody else could, like predict the future, or tell truths from lies, or find all manner of lost things even in the places that everybody had surely already looked. It was their job to do the impossible and the unthinkable. For instance, Vea’s mother would kill her so that the realms would be safe. And Vea would let her so that Malik would be safe.

Vea placed her son onto the small table in the center of the room, while her mother drew symbols on the floor and hummed an old song.

“Don’t you know anything less sad?” Vea asked. “Sing happy birthday to Malik or something. You sound like you’re at a funeral.”

Her mother shot her a look, like she wanted to say, This is a funeral, but what she actually said was, “We’ve already sung that to him and he’ll be spoiled if we do it twice.”

“It’s not like he’ll remember,” Vea said.

“Then there’s definitely no point in doing it,” her mother said back.

Alongside the predictions and the lie detection and the finding of lost things, mothers were also very good at having the last word. The dead never got the last word. They never got to say much at all, only the words others put in their mouth for years after they were buried.

The dead left their legacy to the living and the living often changed it entirely.

“It’s going to hurt,” her mother said, and for the first time her voice broke.

Vea stroked Malik’s hair from his face.

Whatever pain she felt would be worth it. It was the only way to stop all the evil in the world from snatching at her son. So many predictions, and in each of them his magic would bring only war and death.

It was her job to make sure that never happened.

To save him from himself.

“I love you,” her mother said.

Vea swallowed.

She kept looking at Malik.

“I love you,” he said, parroting his amja. “I love you and Daddy and Saxony and Zekia and magic.”

He said Saxony like Safony and magic like magik!!

Vea kissed him on the head and took in a deep breath to steady herself and take in his scent one last time. Like grass and river salt.