Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
. Just her name is enough to cause me to shudder. “What will you do if you find him?”
“If he bears magic, he will be destroyed.”
I jerk back. “Rhen!”
Rhen says nothing. He doesn’t need to. The look in his eyes says enough.
I take another step back. “This man is your
“No. He is a stranger.” There’s no give in his voice. “I spent a near eternity trapped by one magesmith, and it almost drove my country to ruin. I will not risk Emberfall being destroyed by another.”
I’m rooted in place, filled with ice despite the fire at my side. I don’t know what to say. I’ve seen him order a man’s death before, but that was a man who’d killed one of our guards, a man who would have killed us if he’d gotten the chance.
This is different. This is calculated. Premeditated.
Rhen takes a step forward and reaches a hand to touch my face.
I flinch away, and his expression goes still. “I did not intend to upset you,” he says quietly, and I know he means that. “I did not realize this would be a surprise. You saw with your own eyes the damage Lilith caused.”
Yes. I did. I saw her torture Rhen time and again. He was powerless to stop her.
“I’m sure you’re right,” I say, even though I’m not sure at all. I draw a shaking breath and have to press a hand to my stomach.
Rhen has proven that he’ll do what he needs to do to hold Emberfall together. He’s proving it now.
“Do not draw away from me,” he says softly, and there is a new note in his voice. Not vulnerability—never that—but something close. “Please. I cannot bear it.”
He looks so tired. His body is so tense. I wonder when he last slept. I take a deep breath and chase the trembling out of my fingers, then move forward to put my arms around him.
fears,” I say quietly.
“We do not even know if Lilith is dead,” Rhen says. “If she were to find this heir—if they were to work together against me—”
“It’s been months. She’s either trapped on the other side or Grey is.”
“Or he’s sworn to her, as we saw, and she is biding her time.”
Grey swore himself into her service to save me—just before putting his sword to Lilith’s throat and disappearing to the other side. To Washington, DC.
“He wouldn’t help her,” I say. “Rhen. He wouldn’t.”
“I have to protect my people, Harper.”
He leans against me, and I listen to the pattern of his breathing as it slows. I lay a hand against his cheek, and his eyes close. There was a moment, months ago, when he was the monster, and he pressed his face against my hand and settled, just like this. I could feel his fear then. I can feel it now.
“You’re not a monster anymore,” I whisper.
“I sent guards to Grey’s mother’s home in Wildthorne Valley,” Rhen says carefully.
My hand goes still on his cheek. “What? When?”
“Last week,” he says. “To be thorough.” He pauses. “They returned today.”
Grey once told me that Lilith killed his whole family, leaving only his mother alive. “What did they find?”
“His mother was gone. The townspeople said she sold off her livestock and moved away months ago. No one knew where she’d gone.” Another pause. “Rumor said a wounded man stayed with her for a short while, but no one saw him.”
I hold my breath for a moment. “Grey could be alive,” I whisper.
“Yes.” Rhen’s voice is hard, but I feel the worry and uncertainty behind it. “Given what they reported, I suspect Grey is very much alive.”
I look up at him. “Grey wouldn’t be sworn to her, Rhen.”
“If he was not, why would he not return to Ironrose?”
I try to think of an answer and fail.
“Karis Luran could attack at any time,” Rhen says. “The heir could appear at any time.” He pauses. “And Lilith could be waiting for the perfect moment to strike.”
I lean my head against Rhen’s chest and look to the window
again, gazing out at the stars spanning the sky. “Oh, Grey,” I say. “Where are you?”
“Indeed,” says Rhen. He sighs, and in the sound, I hear the longing and sadness and worry wrapped up in the word. He brushes a kiss against my hair. “Indeed.”
Late afternoon always bears the weight of the sun, but I don’t mind, because the stables are quiet, and I rarely have more than the other stable hand for company.
This is the last place anyone will look for me, so I welcome it.
Sweat clings to my arms, attracting bits of dirt and straw as I swing the pitchfork. The heat will get worse before it gets better, but I’m used to it. Worwick’s Tourney is closed for business until dark, deserted except for me and Tycho. Later, the stables will be loud with the sounds of men calling for horses or bickering over the weapons for rent at the end of the aisle. Once the drink starts flowing and the stadium is filled with people eager for a show, the noise will be deafening.
Now, though, the stadium is empty, and the stables are wanting for a good cleaning. A far cry from the extravagant luxury of Ironrose, when I was commander of the Royal Guard of Emberfall.
Tycho has been singing under his breath as he mucks the stalls,
so quietly that I can’t catch the melody over the sounds of horses breathing. He’s small for his age, with a wiry build that makes him look closer to twelve than fifteen, but that doesn’t stop him from being quick and capable. Dark-blond hair hangs just past his chin, keeping the blue of his eyes in shadow.
Tycho likes this time of day, too, for different reasons. Men with a belly full of ale sometimes come looking for entertainment after the tourney. I’ve heard them offer Worwick coins for an hour of Tycho’s company. I’ve watched Worwick consider it.
The boy knows how to make himself scarce.
I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to make sure he knows how to defend himself instead.
“How many do you have left?” I call to him.
“Three,” he calls back. He drags a forearm across his brow. “Silver hell, it’s hot.”
I look out the stall window at the angle of the sun. We have a few hours left until sunset. “I’ll take your three. Head for the Growling Dog. Jodi said she would have crabs from Silvermoon this week.”
He steps out of his stall. “Hawk. Jodi’s tavern is on the other side of the city.”
Three months, and I still haven’t gotten used to the name. I shove damp hair off my forehead and smile. “Then you’d better get running. Steamed crabs cost a copper apiece.”
He sighs—but a moment later, I hear his feet slap the dirt floor of the aisle. “When I win, I’m ordering a
,” he calls behind him.
He won’t win. Even with the head start I’ve given him.
He’s getting closer, though.
When I first came here, I was still healing from my final battle with Lilith. Nightmares plagued my sleep for weeks, leaving me exhausted and weak. Cleaning stalls and weapons took most of my energy.
Once I healed, however, the monotony of life at the tourney began leaving me bored and twitchy. I missed the physical rigors of the Royal Guard. A few hours with a pitchfork and a rag were nothing compared to hours of drills and swordplay. I began rising before the sun, running a loop of the city in the early-morning darkness, or climbing the laddered roof supports of the stadium.
I don’t know how long Tycho was following me before I caught him, but it was early enough that I was still terrified of being discovered. He was lucky I didn’t have a blade on me.
was lucky. My skills with weapons would definitely draw attention. If anyone comes looking for a skilled swordsman, I don’t want fingers pointing to me. Sometimes I’ll spar with Tycho using the blades we keep for practice, but I’m careful to execute only basic moves, and I let him get in a lot of hits.
A wagon creaks outside, with the clopping heaviness of draft horses. A man’s blustering voice calls out, “Tycho! Hawk! Come see what I’ve got!”
Worwick. I sigh. He could have anything, from a slab of ice to a rusted nail to a fisherman’s corpse.
Considering this heat, I very much hope it’s not the latter.
I step out of the stables, wiping my hands along my trousers. The wagon carries a massive crate, taller than a man, covered by a huge length of fabric that’s tied down at the corners. The draft horses are slick with sweat, froth dripping from their mouths.
Worwick always drives the animals too hard. I’ll have to wash
them down before running across the city. Tycho might win today after all.
Worwick looks like he’s found a pile of the king’s silver. He practically bounces down from the seat of the wagon, and considering his heft, that’s saying something. He pulls a rag from his pocket and mops his drenched brow. “You won’t believe this,” he says. “You simply won’t believe this.”
“What do you have?” I say.
“Where’s Tycho?” Worwick all but cackles with glee. “I want to see his reaction.”
Racing me to the tavern for steamed crabs that I’ll have to buy if you drag this out too long.
“I sent him into the city for an ointment for one of the horses.”
“Ah. Too bad.” He sighs with disappointment. “I’ll just have to see yours, then.”
I likely won’t have much of a reaction, and he knows it. Worwick finds me stoic and unimaginative. I spent far too long serving the crown prince—in both his human and his monster form—to bat an eye at anything Worwick might have under this sheet.
He’s not a bad man, just a bit crude, and too driven by what will bring him an extra coin for his pocket. As Commander Grey, I would have pitied him.
As Hawk, I simply tolerate him.
“Go ahead, then,” I say.
“Help me untie the canvas.”
The ropes are tight and double knotted. I’m on the second corner when I realize he’s still on the ground, watching me.
Typical. The second rope gives, and I flip the sheet high.
It’s a cage. I’m staring down at … a creature I can’t identify.
It’s somewhat human-shaped, with dark-gray skin, the color of a cloudy night sky. Wings bound with rope sprout from its back, and there’s a length of tail that curls limply along the ground of the cage. It has clawed hands and feet, and a shock of black hair that’s matted with sweat.
It’s not moving.
“Goodness,” says Worwick. “Do you think it died?”
“If it’s not dead, it’s close.” I cast a dark look at him. “How long has it been covered up like that?”
“In this heat?”
He puts a hand to his mouth. “Oh dear.”
“It needs water.” When he doesn’t move, I jump off the wagon and fetch a bucket from the stable.
The creature still hasn’t moved by the time I return. I climb back on the wagon and crouch beside the cage. I watch its ribs expanding slowly. At least it’s breathing. I take a handful of water and extend my hand through the bars, trickling it along its face. Its nose is slightly narrower than a human’s, its jaw wider. The water makes a trail along the smoke-colored skin.
“What is it?” I say to Worwick. “Where did you get it?”
“It’s a scraver,” he says. “They said it was captured far in the north, in the ice forests beyond Syhl Shallow. I won it in a game of cards! Fortune smiled on me today, my boy.”
A scraver. I remember a childhood story about something like this, but it’s been too long for me to recall much. “I thought those were a myth. Something to scare children.”
I take another handful of water and let it run down over its
face, then cluck to it like a horse. The scraver’s eyelids flicker, but it does not move.
“Can you believe,” says Worwick, “that they were charging two coppers just to look at it? Absolutely shameful.”
My eyebrows go up. Sympathy isn’t something I often hear from Worwick. “I agree.”
“Exactly! For a scraver? People would surely pay five.”
Ah. There it is.
When I take a third handful, the creature twitches. Its mouth moves, seeking the water. Claws scrape against the floor of the cage as it tries to pull nearer to me. Its movements are weak and pitiful.
“Easy now,” I say softly. “I have more.” I take another handful of water. I’ll have to fetch a ladle.
The scraver inhales deeply, its nostrils flaring, and a low sound comes from its chest. I put my hand as close to its lips as I can manage.
Its eyes open, and they’re all black. The low sound becomes a growl.
“Easy,” I say again. “I won’t hurt—”
It lunges for my hand. I’m quick, but it’s quicker. Fangs sink into my wrist before I can get my arm out of the cage. I jerk free and stumble back, tripping over the bucket of water and all but falling off the wagon.
Worwick stares down at me, then bursts out laughing. “No, no. It was better that you were here. I don’t think Tycho would have had the nerve to put a hand in there with it.”
Silver hell. My wrist is bleeding something fierce. Dirt and sweat have already set it stinging.
The scraver has retreated to the opposite side of the cage. From here, I can tell the creature’s unashamedly male. It’s glaring at me: fangs half bared, eyes pools of dark warning.
“You’re going to have to wait for water now,” I say.
“What do you think we should do with it?” says Worwick.
I sigh. My wrist burns, and I’m starving. I’m going to have to fetch Tycho and be back before dark, or there will be hell to pay. “We can’t leave it out here in the sun. Let’s take the wagon into the stadium,” I say. “We can figure out what to do with it after the tourney.”
“Hawk, you’re a good man.” He claps me on the shoulder. “I’ll be in my office if you need me.”
Tycho is sitting at the bar, a half-eaten platter of crabs in front of him and a smile on his face. It’s early for the tavern, too, so the place isn’t crowded, and Tycho has the bar to himself. He looks so pleased with himself that I’m almost glad Worwick rolled into the courtyard with a problem he expected me to solve.
I can’t help but smile back. “Don’t get cocky.”
He grins at Jodi, the young woman behind the bar. “I think I’ll have another dozen. Hawk is buying.”
She smiles, her golden-brown eyes shining. “So you’ve said.”
I snort. “You’ll make yourself sick on what’s in front of you. I’m not carrying you back.”
“I know.” He pushes the tray over. “The other half are for you.”
I climb onto the stool beside him, and Jodi slides a plate and a knife onto the counter for me. My trip across the city was long and
grueling and destroyed my appetite, but I take a crab from the pile anyway. Tycho is usually so reserved that I don’t want to rain on his spirit.
Jodi comes to lean against the bar. Her brown hair hangs to her waist, with feathers and stones braided into some of the strands. She’s tan from the sun, with freckles on her cheeks and a tiny gap between her front two teeth. Her chest all but spills out of her dress when she rests against her forearms, and she offers me a wide smile.
It’s an effect not lost on me, but I spent so long forswearing any kind of relationship that I’ve forgotten what a flare of attraction could feel like.
No. That is not true. I remember Harper. I remember the kindness in her eyes and her endless tenacity and the feel of her hand under mine when I showed her how to throw knives in the snow.
That was forbidden then, and it’s forbidden now. Thoughts of Harper will go nowhere useful, so I shove them away.
“Wine or ale?” Jodi says.
“Water.” I split a crab leg with the knife and pull the meat free. “If you please.”
She pouts. “You never drink.”
I shrug. “Tycho already spent my coins on the food.” This isn’t true, but I have no head for spirits. It wasn’t allowed when I was a guardsman, and the one time I shared a bottle with Rhen, it nearly put me on the floor. As Hawk, I worry what truths would spill from my lips if I dared to try.
Then again, maybe they wouldn’t. When I was in the Royal Guard, I always felt that my life had been split into two acts. There was before, when I was a young farm boy, looking for a way to help keep my family alive.
Then there was after, when I was a guardsman, making my life by keeping the royal family alive. There were times when my family became a distant memory, almost people my imagination conjured instead of individuals I’d lived with and cared for.
Now it seems I’ve found a third act. Some days the castle and the curse feel as imaginary as my family. I don’t know how much of Grey the guardsman is left.
Jodi sets a glass of water in front of me. I drain half in one swallow, wipe at my mouth with a napkin, then split another crab leg with the knife.
“You eat like a nobleman,” she says, her tone musing. “I don’t think I ever noticed that before.”
My fingers hesitate, but I force my hand to move, to split another shell. She’s not wrong, but it’s not something I ever considered: I eat like a man who was trained to dine with royalty.
I try to do it more clumsily, though it probably looks forced. In a moment, I’m going to take off a finger with the knife. I offer Jodi a smile and give Tycho a good-natured shove. “It’s more likely that you’re used to drunkards digging for the meat with their teeth.”
Tycho smiles shyly. “I’m not drunk, at least.” His eyes fall on the makeshift bandage I wrapped around my arm. “What did you do to your wrist?”