Julia has been ensnared in so many different webs, it's hard to see how she'll ever break free. She must do Casimir's bidding in order to save the life of her brother. She must work against Casimir to save the lives of most everyone else she knows.
Casimir demands that Julia use her vanishing skills to act as a spy at court and ensure that a malleable prince is installed on the throne of Frayne. But Julia is secretly acting as a double agent, passing information to the revolutionaries and witches who want a rebel princess to rule.
Beyond these deadly entanglements, Julia is also desperately seeking the truth about herself: How is it she can vanish? Is she some form of monster? Is her life her own?
With every move she makes, Julia finds herself tangled ever tighter. Should she try to save her country? Her brother? A beloved child? Can she even save herself?
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She is a burnt husk on the bed, a charred and twisted branch, like something left behind after the fire has raged through. But she is somehow alive, if you can call it that. Her breath comes in and out in slow, laborious rasps; her blackened chest rises and falls. At first I wonder why they don’t cover her, but then I imagine it must be painful to have clothing or blankets touching that seared flesh.
When her breath rattles to a halt, the two men at her bedside lean forward. And then: another gasp, the burnt chest heaves. They relax--deflate. I call them men, but they are not really men. They are the Xianren, ancient, immortal siblings--or as close to immortal as any living thing can come. There is no true immortality. Their sister dying on the bed is proof of that.
A hunchbacked woman with fair, graying hair and sad eyes sits in the corner of the room. I know her. The last time we met I fired as many bullets as I had into her, for all the good it did. She has a cartridge pen in her hand, and she is writing in a book that lies open on her lap--writing magic. The room smells of damp earth. Her gaze flickers toward us and rests on me, appraising, curious. The brothers do not look up. It becomes obvious that they did not hear us come in at all--too bent on their sister’s every breath. Pia says, in her broken-glass voice, “Here is Julia.”
They look up: Casimir, his face livid, all sharp edges and dead stone eyes, and Gennady like a broken lion, huge and golden-hued. I’ve been here a week, but they have been sitting vigil, and I was not summoned to see them until now, no matter how I begged for news of my own brother. I’ve been locked in a tower room playing cards with Pia, waiting. We got in the habit of cards on the long sea journey from Yongguo: King’s Heir, Four Realms, Evil Eights, Diamond Jack. It’s true that I count Pia my enemy, when I pause to count my enemies, but she’s all I’ve had for company for over a month now, and we had to pass the time somehow. One can’t fill every hour counting enemies.
Casimir rises, a flash of panic on his face that surprises me. Surely he is not afraid of me? But maybe he is. After all, look what I did to his sister.
“I told you--” he snarls at Pia. Her knees buckle; she steadies herself against the doorframe. The mechanical goggles fixed over her eyes swivel in and out. The hunchbacked witch--I know her only as Shey--looks back and forth between Pia and Casimir. When Casimir speaks again, it is to me, and his voice is unnervingly calm: “You left a mess behind you in Yongguo.”
“I’m here for Dek,” I say.
I am waiting for the moment when I can pull this man out of the world and destroy him like I did his sister. I will end him--but her scorched body on the bed and the horrible sound of her breathing shake my resolve more than I’d expected.
He points a trembling finger at her. His voice might be steady, but he is not steady, not at all.
“Look at what you have done to her.”
We all look at her. I used to think about forgiveness. I used to want it for myself. But I’m past all that, and I forgive nothing.
Her breathing comes to a choking stop again. The silence stretches out. Gennady moans. I make myself watch. If I did this, and if I was right, then I don’t get to look away.
“Save her,” Casimir says to Shey--somewhere between a plea and a command.
“I can only ease her pain.”
“She is not dead yet. You can save her!”
Shey keeps writing in her book and says, “Not for long, and even if I could, it would cost me too much.”
His face twists. His voice comes out a shriek: “Do as I say, witch!”
Shey puts her pen down and looks at him. The color drains from his face. I can see in that moment that he’s afraid; he’s overstepped. She picks up the pen again--a weapon, in her hand.
A gurgle, a cough, a gasp from the carcass on the bed.
“She killed Bianka,” I say to Gennady.
He raises his head slowly, like it’s too heavy for him.
“Bianka is dead?”
I nod, and he sags forward. He will blame himself, I reckon, and rightly so. Between the three of them--for they each played a part--the Xianren destroyed Bianka. If not for Gennady, though, she would never have been involved at all.
“My sister has been asking for you,” says Casimir.
I can’t quite see how she would manage to ask for anything, but I walk to her bedside. I find her eyes open in what used to be her face. Her hand moves suddenly, like a snake, closing wetly around my wrist, her grip stronger than I would have expected. I stifle a scream. With the next tortured exhalation, she says: “Julia.”
I’m sorry. That’s what leaps to my lips, but I shut my teeth over the words. I’m not sorry. Die, old thing. Just die.
“I tried to,” she whispers. “Everything . . . depends on. You must. The book, Lidari. Don’t let him.”
And then she stops breathing again, eyes rolling around frantically, and her enemy brothers bend over her, stunned by their grief because death has never truly touched any of them before in all of their thousands of years as sometime allies and sometime foes. But she’s not dead--she’s still holding on to me. I yank my wrist free.
She heaves another breath.
“Is that it?” I say.
Casimir pivots and shoves me away from her so that I stumble backward, nearly falling over. I regain my footing and whip my knife out of my boot. Just instinct, that. We stand staring at each other and then Casimir says coldly to Pia: “Why is she armed?”
Pia shrugs. “What is she going to do with a knife? Cut your throat?”
“Get her out of my sight.” He turns his back on me and my useless knife, bending his long body over his sister again.
Shaking, I slide the knife back into my boot lining. Pia’s boot, actually; everything I’m wearing is hers. I could have asked for other clothes once we got here, but the truth is I prefer dressing like her. It feels like wearing a kind of armor. And what am I going to do with a knife? The witch, Shey, watches us go, pen poised. Pia takes me back to the room at the top of the castle where I’ve been passing the days since my arrival.
I slump in a chair and drop my face into my hands, trying to blot out the sight of Mrs. Och’s ruined body, her eyes still the same in that face that is no longer a face. The book, Lidari. I feel sick at being called Lidari--the monster that may or may not be trapped inside me--and bewildered by her message. Was she asking me not to let Casimir assemble The Book of Disruption? As if I need to be told.
Pia slings herself into the chair across from me, takes out a pack of cards, cuts and shuffles the deck, deals out.
Excerpted from "Julia Unbound"
Copyright © 2018 Catherine Egan.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Children's Books.
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