Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
I flop down on the blankets beside her, staring up at the darkening panels of fabric. “This is why I am far more enamored of the men in my stories.”
“Oh, I am certain those dry pages keep you quite warm at night.”
“You’re so vulgar.” I giggle and turn my head to look at her.
She makes a lewd gesture and grins. I smack her hand away, and she laughs.
I know she will make an exceptional queen, but I want to remember my sister just like this, with a soft smile only for me, no vicious determination in her gaze.
A shout echoes through the camp, followed by more yelling, and then a girl screams. A man speaks rapidly in the common tongue of Emberfall, his accent much thicker than the one our tutor has. It takes me a moment to parse out the words.
“Please,” he is saying. “We mean no harm. Please allow us passage.”
Nolla Verin is already through the panels of our tent, and I am quick to follow.
Our guards have built a fire, and a few hare hang on a spit above it. No one is paying attention to the food, though. Tik and Dyhl have their crossbows trained on a middle-aged man who is on his knees, crouched over a young girl, blocking her with his body. A thick beard covers most of his face. A few brown pelts lie in a pile beside him.
My mother stands in the firelight, tall and lean and striking, her red hair hanging straight to her shoulders. “What is your business here?” she says.
“I am a trapper,” he says. “I saw your fire and thought—” He breaks off with a gasp as Dyhl moves close enough to drive the point of his crossbow into the man’s back. From where he stands, if Dyhl pulls the trigger, the force of the weapon will drive the arrow into both the man and the girl.
“I-I-I am unarmed,” the man stammers.
“You wear a knife at your hip,” says my mother. It’s right there in plain sight. She doesn’t suffer fools.
His hand shifts as if to go for the weapon, but Tik, standing in front of him, lifts his crossbow just a hair. The man’s hand goes up as if to prove he’s harmless. “The knife is dull!” he cries. The girl whimpers underneath him. “For skinning. Take it. Take everything I have.”
My heart thuds in my chest. We’ve ridden past the remains of towns—destruction caused by our soldiers. The population here is sparse, but we are also trying to make our way to the prince’s castle under some veil of secrecy. If we allow this man to leave and he spreads the word, we could be attacked before our arrival. As my sister said, we are in hostile territory.
Hostile because of our own actions
, my thoughts whisper to me.
If I did not want to see the result of our attacks on Emberfall, I most certainly do not want to see slaughter before my own eyes.
At my side, Nolla Verin does not look affected. She looks curious. She is waiting to see how our mother will handle this invasion.
To my surprise, Mother turns to look at Nolla Verin. “My daughter will decide your fate, trapper.”
My sister straightens. This is not the first time Mother has looked to either of us for a decision, but it is the first time real lives have hung in the balance.
The man’s eyes lock on my sister. From below his arm, the girl peers out. Tears streak through the dust on her cheeks.
“Please,” the man says, and his voice is rough. “We have no part in the quarrel between your people and ours.”
I cannot see my sister’s expression, but the man’s eyes fill with sorrow at whatever he finds there, and he turns his head to speak softly to the girl cowering beneath him. A sob breaks from her chest.
I reach out and grasp my sister’s hand. “Nolla Verin,” I whisper. “We are here to find a path to peace.”
She squeezes my fingers, then glances at me. I want there to be a flicker of indecision in her eyes. Of dismay at having to make such a choice.
There is none. She looks back at Dyhl. “Kill him.”
The girl screams. The crossbow fires. The man collapses. The girl is no longer visible. The bolt must have gone right through them both.
Silence envelops the forest.
It does not last long. Nolla Verin looks to the guards. “Double the number of lookouts through the night. I do not want another
stumbling into our camp.”
She turns on her heel and returns to our tent.
I cannot follow. Every guard in this clearing can probably sense my unhappiness.
Mother surely can.
I turn from the bodies as well. I cannot go back to our tent, but I can walk. Sorra and Parrish will follow, though I do not feel as though I deserve guards. Not now. I step into the heavy darkness surrounding the camp.
A bit of gold glints between the trees, barely caught by the firelight. I freeze, narrowing my eyes.
Not gold. Blond. Hair. A girl, larger than the one who was pinned beneath the man. Her hands are over her face, her shoulders shaking. A long strand of pelts hangs from one shoulder.
She is crying.
Her eyes meet mine, and she gasps. She goes still, panic washing over her face.
I give a brief shake of my head. So brief it’s almost invisible.
I want to say
. Stay away
“Lia Mara,” my mother calls.
I should not care about one man and his daughter.
I should not care.
Mother will not call my name twice. I turn, awaiting a rebuke.
Parrish, my guard, is right there, almost beside me. He followed me into the trees, as he should, but one look at his eyes and I know he’s seen the girl, too. His own crossbow hangs ready in his hand, and a swell of fear rises in my gut.
He gives a brief shake of his head, the movement as minute as mine was. “You should not walk into the forest,” he says. “Who knows what other dangers hide among the trees.”
I fight to keep from gasping in relief. He will not pursue her.
My gaze returns to the spot where the girl hid. Only darkness waits there now.
If I look back at Parrish, Mother will know something is amiss. I straighten my shoulders. “Yes, Mother.”
“Come join me.”
She is sitting by the fire. Near the bodies.
This will be my punishment. For being too soft. For begging mercy.
This is why Nolla Verin will be queen.
Since we saw the soldiers at Jodi’s tavern yesterday, I’ve been tense and irritable. I keep expecting their captain to appear at Worwick’s and drag me back to Ironrose. Or worse, to drag me into the shadows behind the stadium, where they can separate my head from my body.
These worries are irrational. So few people know who I truly am and what I know.
The enchantress Lilith—who is dead. I cut her throat myself.
My mother—who is not my mother at all. I walked out of her house with nothing. I left her with all the silver and coppers I had, and every warning I thought to give. Hopefully she took the money and left. But if anyone went to her seeking me, she’d have no answer to give beyond the truth: I showed up and I left.
Karis Luran—who, if Lilith’s threats were to be believed, would use this information to destroy Rhen, if he’d believe her at all.
My surly attitude has rubbed off on Tycho, made worse by the
ongoing heat wave. Today’s weather brought a thickening cloud cover that seemed to promise storms, but only delivered a cloying humidity that makes everything sticky and everyone miserable. He’s raking the space between the stadium seats and the arena, making each drag of the tool an attack on the dirt. Dust floats into the air, settling on everything, including the expensive cushioned seats that I’ve just wiped down.
“Hey,” I snap.
He whips around, cringing a little.
“Put the rake up,” I say, forcing the edge out of my tone. I dip my rag in a bucket and wring it out to wipe the seats again. “It’s just making a mess.”
He must feel bad, because when he comes back, he brings another rag to wipe down the railing. We work quietly for a while, relishing the late-afternoon silence.
When he’s quiet like this, he reminds me of my brother Cade, who was thirteen when I was sixteen. I don’t know why, because they’re not at all alike, really. Cade would talk my ear off about nothing, while I sometimes go hours without hearing a word from Tycho. But Cade could put his head down and work when he needed to. He helped run the farm after I was gone.
After Lilith killed them all, I did my best to banish my siblings from memory. Maybe shoving away my time as a guardsman has allowed earlier memories to fill the space between my thoughts. Maybe learning they weren’t my siblings at all has done the same.
I’m not sure I like that. Especially since we’ve run out of chores.
“It’s too hot to run,” I say.
“It’s too hot to do anything.” Tycho takes a handful of water and splashes it over the back of his neck.
“Oh,” I say. “I was going to ask if you wanted to get the practice blades.”
“Wait. Really? Yes.” He stands up straight, the heat forgotten.
“Go ahead, then.”
I dump the bucket behind the storage room, then hang our rags to dry. By the time I make my way over to the armory, Tycho has a light training sword in his hands, and he’s swinging it in a practiced pattern. He’s good enough now that I’d trust him with a real blade—in another time and place. As Hawk, I don’t know any moves more advanced than simple blocks and thrusts.
We spar in the narrow space between the armory and the stables, where Worwick stores larger equipment. The scraver’s cage is back here, too, our only audience, though its dark form is motionless. Worwick was serious about five coppers, because he tried charging it last night. He was getting it, too, until a man complained that he didn’t pay to see a half-dead pile of skin and feathers.
Now it sleeps most of the day, cocooned in its wings.
Tycho is tiring, so I give him an opening. He spots it immediately and lunges. I barely have time to sidestep his blade.
He’s panting from the effort, but he grins. “I almost got you.”
I can’t help smiling back. “Almost.” I tap his blade away with my own and push sweat-dampened hair off my face.
“Play time is over, boys,” a man calls, his voice booming through the space. I recognize the voice before I see the man: Kantor. One of Worwick’s “champions.”
Worwick has two men who fight in the tourney: Kantor and Journ. They’re both middle-aged and good with a sword—they must be, to fight any challenger who walks in here—but their real value to Worwick is in giving the audience a good show. One of them is quiet and reserved when he’s not in front of a crowd, a man
who carries hard candies in his pockets for children who cheer from the sidelines, then goes home to a sweet wife and three boys of his own. A good man who works hard, fights fair, and earns an honest living.
The other one is Kantor.
Kantor is a man who bets against himself, so even when he loses, he wins. Worwick shouldn’t allow it, but I’m pretty sure Kantor cuts him in on his winnings. He’s loud and boorish and lies without consideration. He makes for a good villain in front of the crowds. Unfortunately it doesn’t stop when he’s outside the arena.
Tycho moves to return his sword to the rack, but Kantor picks up one of the real swords and deftly knocks it out of his hand, sending it into the dust.
“When are you going to learn to hold a sword like a man?” he says.
“Leave him alone,” I say.
Tycho silently fetches his weapon, but I catch a glimpse of his scowl, even though he keeps his head down in front of Kantor.
Kantor has the brain of a child, and he’s found an entertaining diversion, so it barely takes a shift of his weight for me to see he’s going to smack Tycho’s sword away again—and this time he’s going to make it hurt.
I step forward, swing my practice blade down, and pin Kantor’s sword to the wall.
His head whips around. His mouth hangs open, though he quickly snaps it closed.
“I should take off your hand for that.” He scrapes his weapon free.
I could take off
hand before he’d get close to mine, but I shrug and look away. The best way to deal with Kantor is to not take him too seriously. “The practice blades dull the real ones. If you want to play, use your own, or take it up with Worwick.”
He frowns, but I’m right and he knows it. His pride won’t let him hang up the weapon, though. He moves away, twisting the sword in his hands, letting it cut patterns into the dust. He stops by the scraver’s cage.
“What is Worwick going to do with this thing?” Kantor pokes at it with the tip of his sword, and the creature doesn’t move.
“Don’t hurt it,” Tycho says.
“Hurt it? It’s practically dead.” Kantor steps close and jabs the weapon through the bars, his steel blade piercing flesh.
The scraver roars and spins to its feet in a whirl of wings and blood. It slams against the bars, claws reaching for Kantor, screeching so loudly that it echoes through the arena and the horses in the stable begin to stamp and fuss.
Kantor jerks back, trips over his own feet, and lands hard in the dust. Three long stripes of blood cross his forearm. Kantor swears and surges off the ground, lifting his sword as if he’s going to plunge it into the creature’s midsection.
Tycho dives in front of him, putting his back against the bars. “No!”
I expect the scraver to slice those claws into Tycho as well, but the creature falls back and growls.
Kantor looks like he’s ready to go through Tycho anyway.
I step in front of him. “Enough.”
Kantor lifts his sword a few inches. “Move, or I’ll go through you both.”
The training blade is still in my hand. My fingers tighten on the hilt.
I don’t know what Kantor sees in my expression, but surprise lights in his eyes. He gives a rough laugh. “You want to fight me, boy? Over that thing?” He gestures with his blade. “Go ahead, then. See how long you last.”
“What’s going on?” calls Worwick, his voice booming across the small area. The screeching must have drawn his attention. It probably caught the attention of half the city.
In my peripheral vision, I see Worwick come around the corner, but I don’t take my eyes off the man in front of me. Kantor doesn’t take his off me.
“Kantor! Hawk!” Worwick sounds confused. “What … what are you doing?”
“Kantor was going to kill your scraver,” pipes up Tycho. “Hawk stopped him.”
“Ah, I was just fooling around,” drawls Kantor. He lowers his sword and holds out his arm. “The damn thing got me good.”
“You got it first,” I say.
Behind me, the scraver growls again.
“Enough foolishness,” says Worwick. “The Grand Marshal has dropped off a royal decree to be read before the tourney. Rumors are running wild in the street, so we’ll have a packed house tonight.”
That’s enough to pull my attention away from Kantor. “A royal decree?”
“The prince is offering five hundred silvers to anyone who can produce someone with the blood of a magesmith.”
The blood of a magesmith.
Rhen can’t say it outright,
because he’d lend legitimacy to the rumors, but he’s looking for the heir.
He’s looking for
“Five hundred silvers!” Kantor finally lowers his blade and turns away from me. “Worwick, I’d turn
in for five hundred silvers.”
“Evidence of magic must be proven,” says Worwick. His eyes light up. “Tycho. Hawk. You spend time in the city. You haven’t seen evidence of magic in Rillisk, have you?”
As if we’d give him someone’s name and allow him to claim the coins.
But at least this offers me some measure of safety. I’ve never been able to use magic on my own. Maybe Lilith was wrong. Maybe I’m not the heir to anything at all.
Don’t you want to know the truth?
she said to me.
About the blood that runs in your veins? About how you were the only guardsman to survive?
I want her to be wrong.
She’s not, though. I know she’s not. My mother admitted it before I fled.
“No one has seen magic,” says Tycho. “The magesmiths were killed off before I was born.”
“Not all of them, apparently,” says Worwick. “Hawk, are you ill?”
“No. I’m fine.” I force my limbs to move, and I hang the blade along the wall.
“Kantor, did you cut my scraver?” Worwick
. “Hawk, stitch it up, would you?”
“Yes.” I have no idea how I’ll do that, but my brain won’t stop spinning.
Five hundred silvers is a fortune to most. The people of Emberfall will turn on each other to claim it. Rhen must be desperate.
“Be ready for crowds, boys,” says Worwick. “Tycho, be ready to pour. I don’t want lines for ale. We’ll turn a pretty profit in gambling alone, I’m sure.”
“I’ll make sure of it.” Kantor laughs. He smacks the other man on the shoulder good-naturedly. Worwick smiles and heads back toward the front of the tourney.
I sigh and look at Tycho. “Fetch some ropes. I’ll get the needle.”
The tourney doesn’t close until well after midnight. When we finally climb the ladder to our shared loft, Tycho doesn’t bother to light the lantern; he just falls into his bed. I expect him to tumble into sleep just as quickly, but instead he says, “I can’t imagine five hundred silvers all together.”
I don’t need to imagine it, but I say, “I’ve been hearing about that all night.”
“Do you think it’s heavy?”
“Heavy enough to make you walk crooked.” This isn’t true, but it makes him laugh, and then he falls silent.
I stare at the worn wooden rafters over my bed. The loft smells of hay and horses and holds the heat of the stable below, but I don’t mind. It’s warm and safe and dry here. I have nothing to fear from Tycho.
“It would buy my freedom from Worwick,” he says quietly.
I turn my head to look at him, barely a dim shadow in the midnight darkness. “Your freedom?”
“I’m sworn to him.” He pauses. “Two more years.”
“Bad luck. Bad debts.”
I’ve never seen Tycho gamble a single copper. “Not yours.”
“My father.” He takes a long breath. “I have two younger sisters, but I know what Worwick would have used them for. My brother is barely six. My family had nothing left to give. So …”
I look back at the rafters. “I once swore my life away to save my family—but my oath was freely given.”
“Mine was too,” he says.
This doesn’t feel the same. But maybe it is.
“Two years isn’t so very long,” Tycho says. “How long did it take for you to earn your freedom?”
This conversation is dragging memories to the surface, memories that are better left buried. “An eternity.”
Tycho laughs softly. “I know what you mean.”
No. He has no idea.
When he speaks again, his voice is halting. “Hawk, I don’t—I don’t tell anyone.” A note of worry threads between his words. “If people know I’m sworn to Worwick, they would … well,
might …” His voice trails off.
I consider how Tycho tends to vanish once the nights drag on and sober men are few. It makes me think better of Worwick that he doesn’t work the boy into the ground. That he allows him to hide. “I’ll keep your secret.”
He says nothing to that, and after a moment, I look over. The darkness is nearly absolute, but his eyes catch a gleam of light from somewhere.
I wonder if he’s regretting sharing this. “You have nothing to fear from me, Tycho.”