alliance

03. INTERLOPER

I’m pinned against the hearth; there isn't enough space to pull the shamshir from my back without further exposing my torso to the huge man’s blade, and standing will only bring me closer to him. I scrabble for any idea of how to defend myself, but my brain is blank with panic.

 

Out of the corner of my eye I can see the girl blocking the door with a knife of her own — and when I glance at her, her expression isn’t that ethereal dreaminess I saw earlier but a hunter’s keen focus. Tricking me had been easy in my raw, exhausted state, like a perfectly ripe apple falling into her waiting hands.

 

I’m going to die here.

 

I try to scramble out of the way, but my sapped muscles respond sluggishly, sending me stumbling forward into the shadows of the hideous cabin. It’s a dead end: the two predators are slowly moving in on me, one from each side. It doesn’t matter which one I try to fend off first, the other’ll be on my back as soon as I pivot.

 

Suddenly the front door crashes open, and the girl squawks, barreling out of the way as a man strides into the cabin backlit by the rain and the fire-edged light of dawn. He’s wearing a leather jacket, a button-front shirt, heavy pants, and sturdy boots, like he’s some kind of fearsome lumberjack.

 

The man’s mercilessly dark eyes assay the situation, and he drops the pack he’s carrying, simultaneously yanking a short battleaxe from a harness on his shoulder. A moment later the weapon is sweeping through the air, slicing upward at the burly man and neatly gutting his belly like a fish. 

 

The huge man’s gruesome, burbling screams of rage ring in my ears, yet still I can’t move, not even to cover my nose from the ungodly stench of bile and innards. It’s so foul, so messy, but I can’t help but be grimly riveted.

 

The behemoth’s gruesome injury only slows him, and he slices wildly at the interloper as he staggers forward, viscera slipping out of him like unkempt coils of sausage. The man with the battleaxe easily steps aside and then there’s another axe in his hand — which I only realize after the second blade is buried in the wild man’s neck. 

 

Dark liquid spatters onto a far wall of the dim cabin, and the man with the axes fluidly steps aside, ducking the spray. He’s so graceful, a lethal dancer that’s perfectly untroubled by these two. His adept movements make it all the more humiliating that I didn’t see the cannibals’ snare closing around me.

 

The waif throws me a desperate glance, and I somehow remember how to tug the shamshir from the scabbard on my back. She knows she’s made a lethal mistake bringing me here, it’s written in her fear-widened eyes. I’d been injured, vulnerable, and alone, and she hadn’t counted on anyone being on the lookout for me.

 

There’s a flash of blonde pigtails, and abruptly the girl is gone, vanished out through the splintered door frame.

 

It all happens so fast that it’s as though nothing has happened — but that ghastly perfume of iron and the mound of the monstrous man’s corpse are testament enough. The body is shrouded enough by the shadows that I can almost pretend it doesn’t exist, but for that godsawful stench of blood and waste. The gloom is the only reason I’m not screaming.

 

Gods … I’ve just seen a man die. A man who wanted to kill me. No … was trying to kill me— was going to. Mere hours beyond the castle walls and my life nearly ended right here in some shadowy spiderweb, fat lot of good it might’ve done Daschen in the process.

 

The man with the battleaxes stares at me, tense like a coiled snake, waiting to see what I’m going to do.

 

“Th-thank you,” I stammer, trying to keep my rebellious stomach from going into a full-fledged dry heave at the noxious odor filling the cabin.

 

The baby’s sobbing rises from the back of the cabin again, and the man turns and heads into a dark room without a word. He reemerges a few moments later, his dark features wrinkled in disgust.

 

“She’ll be back for that — likely with her kin.” 

 

The man’s brusque voice is tinged with a foreign accent, but I can’t quite figure out where it’s from, nor what he’s even doing here. Is he a smuggler? He wipes his own blades clean with practiced strokes before refastening them in their harness, snorting with derisive laughter as his eyes fall on the shamshir still clutched in my nerveless fingers.

 

His scorn shocks me out of my stupor, and I realize I’m still frozen in a defensive crouch, unable to even process what’s happening. I sheathe the shamshir, my cheeks burning with mortification — moving awkwardly still, given how closely the man’s watching me and the unfamiliarity of the shoulder harness.

 

“There are shoes in the back,” he says once I’m done with my hapless struggling.

 

I glare at him. “I have shoes.”

 

“Better ones,” he snaps. “You won’t be able to go much further in those rags.”

 

He’s infuriatingly right, and I blunder into the back room, trying to ignore the infant’s blubbering cries. Heaps of clothes are scattered around like the aftermath of one of Gennefra’s petulant rages, but the tears and bloodstains are a clear enough sign of how they came to be here. I manage to find a pair of leather boots that are clean, close enough to my size, and mercifully dry — for the moment, anyway — and exchange them for my worn-out castle slippers.

 

The man is waiting for me by the front door as I reemerge, his rucksack slung over his shoulders again. He looks to be in his forties, and face is oddly familiar. It hits me as we emerge into the overcast morning light: he’s the man I saw before Daschen’s ball, part of that foreign delegation I used to camouflage myself. Still, the man doesn’t recognize me or else doesn’t mention it, saying nothing at all as we cross the glen and head into denser forest.

 

Is he testing me? Waiting for me to speak first? I’m reluctant to break the silence, but I have to know how he found me here if I’ve any hope of steering clear of the castle’s soldiers. I don’t even know why we’re continuing to walk together, as though in silent agreement. “Who are you?”

 

The man’s dark brown eyes narrow as he stares back at me, and it occurs to me that he’s somehow scarier out here, as if the version of him I saw back in Triptyllach Castle was just the tip of the iceberg, and the chilling efficiency I watched him display in that abominable cottage is his true nature. The two I was facing back in the cabin might’ve been killers, but he was no more restrained than they.

 

“A better question might be who you are, since the castle is locked down like a tomb at the moment and we both know that’s a servant’s uniform,” he retorts coolly, nodding at my neatly pleated dress.

 

Good, he doesn’t remember my face. That’s one less thing to worry about, but his lack of remorse for the cold-blooded killing I just witnessed is terrifying. Without it, though, I would have been dead right now — and my skin prickles at the conflicting emotions.

 

“I’m a scullery maid,” I admit. No harm in telling him that much, at least — there must be a hundred girls like me working in the castle.

 

The dark-eyed man peers at me harder as rainfall thickens the air. “Are you, now...?”

 

I can’t tell him my real name, not when there’s even a chance he’s heard about what I did to Daschen and why I’m here. So I say the second name that comes to mind, one that’s close to something I used to be called: “Ash.”

 

The man’s mouth tightens grimly. “And what brings you into the heart of the forest, Ash?”

 

“I’m on an errand for my lady.” Inspiration suddenly strikes, and I quickly add, “To Riverfall, actually. She has a package there that won’t keep, so I … I slipped out to fetch it on her orders.”

 

The man’s eyes flick over me again, measuring me. “Without being discovered on your way out the door? That’s very impressive.”

 

Warning thrums through me at his seemingly nonchalant words. Without even realizing it, I’ve blundered into another sort of sparring match — and the leftover exhilaration running through my veins emboldens my tongue. “Not as impressive as your timing. How did you know I was in there?”

 

The man nods down at our feet. “Tracks. Given the rumors about this area, it was a decent guess what was about to happen to you.”

 

“Rumors?” A blush scalds my cheeks as I realize how ignorant I sound; too many questions and he’ll realize I’m not what I appear to be. Exhaustion is fraying my mind again, and I’m not thinking straight. Curse my idiot tongue!

 

“Bit sheltered, are you, Ash?” The man’s tone is infuriatingly smug. “There are whole warrens of those sort of people about. It’s why none but smugglers dare to use these trails.”

 

“I see.” The laceration on my foot is really starting to throb from walking, and I try to channel the pain into bravura so he won’t see me limping. “So what brings you out here…?”

 

“Raz.” He spares me a quick, dark glance. “I traveled here with the Paharan retinue — and like you, I’ve been called away to Riverfall.”

 

I let my gaze flicker over the man — Raz — again. Riverfall is the nearest city to the castle, so it's not terribly surprising that he's headed that way, too. All the same, running into him on this unfamiliar trail has been my only bit of luck since leaving. He’s intimidating as hell, but he could be exactly what I need: someone to show me the way and then get out of mine.

 

I probably can’t trust him any further than I can drop-kick him, but the fact that he saved my life while asking nothing in return has to count for something.

 

Raz correctly interprets the expression on my face and sighs grudgingly. “I’ll take you to the city limits. Not a step further.”

 

“Fine,” I say quickly, relieved to not have to wheedle or plead with him. “Thank you.”

 

Raz nods heavily, as if chastising himself for this charity. “We’ll have to find somewhere to rest soon.”

 

I squint up at the strengthening glow towards the eastern horizon. “You can’t be serious.”

 

“We’ll be too easy to spot if any more of those people or more soldiers come looking,” he growls. “We’ll rest and be ready to head out again at nightfall.”

 

I desperately want to continue on — but Raz is probably right and I’m too spent to argue. I fall into step behind him and lower my eyes to the trail, counting one more step ahead until the rimey forest floor gives way to the smooth stone of a tiny cave, little more than a burrow. There’s a lot of clanking off to the side of me as Raz drops his pack and battleaxes, and that’s when I finally allow myself to sink to the ground, prop my head on my arm and let my mind drift free.

 

~

 

For the second time in as many days, I jerk awake to screams.

 

It takes a few bleary moments to remember where I am — here in a cave in the middle of the woods with this strange, frightening man whose name I can’t remember for a few breathless moments.

 

Raz. 

 

He’s shouting incoherently, and at first I’m terrified he’s going to attack me, but it isn’t until his dark lashes flutter open that I realize he’s been caught in a nightmare’s grip.

 

I quickly pretend to be asleep, but the soft clicking noises and faint whistling from his part of the cave a few moments later nearly tempt me into opening my eyes. 

 

At first it sounds like he’s cleaning his teeth or calling to birds — yet after another few seconds of listening I’m not so sure. There’s a metallic pitch to the muted racket, but then I hear Raz fumbling with fabric, and with a final click the ghostly noises stop.

 

I don’t peek at the shadowy man until minutes later, when his breaths are slow and regular again. He’s definitely asleep once more, but his brow is furrowed, twitching slightly as he descends into quieter dreams.

 

I watch Raz’s face carefully as I unfasten the shamshir from my shoulders and slide the scabbarded sword around to the front of my body. I hadn’t even thought of the weapon when I fell asleep, but I should keep it close to hand. Sometimes there’s no middle ground between prepared and dead — I’ve already learned that once today.

 

I make a valiant effort to stay awake, but the boulders beneath us are radiating a soporific warmth. That must be why I’m so comfortable, the drear just beyond the mouth of this cramped stone dig just a faint suggestion. There’s probably a hot spring somewhere beneath the rocks. 

 

My body isn’t anywhere near rested yet; the sun’s position shows it’s only been an hour or two since dawn, and as I try to keep a grip on consciousness it slips through my fingers and I fall away into the black.

 

~

 

When I awaken again the sun is low through the trees, and the world seems clear again, free of that glaze of exhaustion that covered everything half a day ago. 

 

Raz’s pack is still here but the strange man himself is gone, so I cautiously make my way outside.

 

We’ve been sleeping beside an ice-blue pool crowded with water lilies, cradled in the center of a pine-guarded glen. It’s astonishingly beautiful, and the fast-flowing water at the inlet is warm from whatever spring runs beneath the rocks, so I take the time to properly clean the wounds on my arm and my foot. The injuries hurt like hell, but both are glancing enough that they shouldn’t cause me too much grief.

 

Grief … Daschen.

 

Tears boil up before I can swallow them back, and my body convulses in a single massive sob. What if my mindless, rash move really injured him? Yesterday morning I was vowing to hunt down anyone who hurt him, and then hours later, that was the very person I became.

 

I’ll never forgive myself. I don’t deserve him, don’t deserve—

 

Raz abruptly appears around the edge of the slope that holds the cave, and I cough to hide my sniffling breaths. The older man doesn’t seem to notice or care that anything’s amiss, so I relax my guard a little as he walks past me, watching him in my peripheral vision as he builds a small fire.

 

As the glade’s quiet beauty seeps into my skin, it occurs to me that I don’t actually have to go on with this insanity. I can’t go back to Triptyllach Castle, certainly, but I could leave Vana altogether, go somewhere no one knows me, start a new life, stay out of everyone else’s way. There’s no one in the world for me now. Daschen, Princess Embla, everything to do with the countess, her daughters, and her societal ambitions … all of that can just become a faded, useless memory. I have my sword, I’m a hard worker, and there are three whole kingdoms out there waiting for me to explore them. I can make my way.

 

As quickly as the notion dawns on me, I realize how empty it is. I can’t really run away — not after the events of these past few days. If I’m capable enough to stand on my own, I’m capable enough to follow through on what I set out to do, and rescue Princess Embla. I’ve no idea how I’m going to accomplish that, exactly, but I have a duty to continue on to Riverfall and give it my best effort.

In hurting Daschen I’ve put myself in his debt. I need to set that right.

 

Father would’ve been proud of me. He’d’ve understood what I’m doing, and he’d urge me to keep going as long as I have strength in my body. I almost laugh to think of what Marthe might say if she could see me now, though, running around in the woods with a silent, angry stranger who slices ogres of other men open without blinking twice — but the thought of her face when I last saw her nearly makes me sick with worry.

 

May Aerona, keep her safe. Talini, too.

 

I dry off and pull my boots back on, and then walk back toward the cave mouth. Raz has a decent fire going, and he’s flaying a squirrel to cook over it, but I shake my head when he indicates it with a nod of his head. I don’t need any more of his charity today.

 

Some of his belongings are spread out on the ground, and I’m frankly impressed to spot the tubular weapon among his not-insignificant arsenal. Father showed me how to use one of these a long time ago, and I think it’ll do what I need — better than my sword, anyway.

 

“May I?” I ask, indicating my choice.

 

Raz nods dubiously, and I can feel his dark eyes boring between my shoulder blades as I walk to the other side of the pool and practice using the blowpipe.

 

The darts are smaller than what I remember, and it takes a few tries before I can get the feathered barbs to fly true. Once I’ve got it under control, though, it’s just as I recall, and after a few minutes in the forest I manage to down a squirrel of my own. 

 

Raz watches without comment as I bleed the animal and clean it for the fire. Our mutual silence leaves too much room for thinking, and as the savory meat roasts over the flames, I mentally kick myself again and again for all the things I didn’t think of bringing when I left the castle. If I’d had my head on straight, I could’ve gleaned a few useful things from Daschen’s room;. I’ll just have to keep a sharp eye out for future opportunities.

 

My life has been the same, day after day for so long — and I’ve grown soft living in the castle. It’s a sickening shock, but I was more weathered as a youngling at the barracks than I am now, and I don’t know this world beyond the castle the way I thought I would. I have to watch my step.

 

After we’re done eating we douse the fire. Night is falling, and it looks like it’s time to head out.

 

“Keep up,” Raz orders in his low, stern tenor before he strides away toward the trail, and I wordlessly follow.

 

~

 

The trail isn’t terribly difficult to follow now that the heavens aren’t hurling a blinding assault down on us, and I find myself fighting to keep Daschen from my thoughts. A crescent moon peeks down through the silhouetted leaves, and I focus on Raz, just a distortion of the crazed patterns of shadow and light ahead of me. Wandering through the forest with a foreign stranger, a sword on my back … when did real life and my childhood self’s dreams trade places?

 

“You’re Paharan, aren’t you?” I ask at some point. My voice is reedy amid the dripping forest, but we both jump at the sudden sound.

 

“From the Eastern Steppe,” Raz answers — startled into speaking, I think, and I’m no less surprised by his answer. He isn’t the strapping sort of man I would’ve expected coming from a kingdom of tiered deltas and striking, barren mountains. 

 

“You’re a farmer?”

 

“Not for a long time.” His evasiveness is aggravating — it’s as though he’s deliberately being cryptic.

 

“So what are you now, other than cranky?”
 

Raz slows, letting me draw even with him, and as his dark eyes fix on mine the air goes out of me like a pinned insect. 

 

“I’m a bounty hunter,” he says carefully. “A member of the Paharan royal family charged me with finding out what happened to Princess Embla, so I’m headed to Riverfall to have a look at the evidence her kidnappers left behind. Or steal the evidence itself, if need be.”

 

Now it’s my turn to be startled — and I nearly stumble over a gnarled root. Dammit! Of all the people with whom I could’ve fallen in, an emissary from one of the royal families has to rank among the least fortunate. I don’t remember hearing any Paharans announced at the ball — but then, I was too distracted at the time to notice anything but Daschen. 

 

But if what he says is true, it’d be like a spy giving himself up.

 

My nerves jangle with warning, and I glance surreptitiously at Raz, sizing up his physique. He’s taller than I am, and though he’s slender the ease with which he handled those axes back at the cabin is proof enough of his strength. It’s obvious he’s a formidable opponent, and I’m woefully out of practice. 

 

I’m going to have to beat him to the law library if I don’t want to risk coming to blows with him — so I’ll have to stick close to him until the exact right moment.

 

“You ask so many questions, yet none now,” Raz says, a curiously serene expression smoothing his dark features. “Care to hear my theory as to why that might be?”

 

My feet keep moving, but I can’t speak — and my fingertips tingle as I wonder how quickly I can draw the shamshir. I can’t freeze this time.

 

“I think you’re the girl who clocked Prince Daschen and ran off with his sword,” Raz tells me.

 

Fuck.

 

I lurch away from Raz and we face each other, a man’s height of space between us. There’s that look in his eye again, the same predatory glint I saw last night when he was asking about why I was out here. He hadn’t forgotten the matter — he’d just let it drop for the moment. 

 

And now here we are again.

 

“It’s my sword, actually,” I correct through gritted teeth. 

 

“Khthonia Fern — that’s your real name, isn’t it?” Raz asks calmly. His gaze flickers over me, taking stock, and the blood rushes deafeningly through my ears. If it’s going to come to this, might as well be here in the heart of the forest, where I don’t have anything like royal guards or innocent bystanders to contend with. 

 

I flick my wrist, loosening it so I’ll be ready to grab the shamshir, and drop my voice to a low growl. “I won’t let you get in my way.”

 

“I suppose you’ve a plan for breaking into the library?” Raz must see something in my expression that gives me away, because a grim smirk tugs at his lips. “As I suspected, scullery maid.”

 

“Not like you’ll do any better,” I seethe. It feels good to not have to hold my tongue for once, even if I’m about to reap some serious repercussions because of it. “I don’t care if you are a bounty hunter, I won’t let you stop me.”

 

Raz prowls around me in a circle, and I ease my weight onto the balls of my feet, bending my knees ever so slightly, muscles tensing for any sudden movement from his quarter. He’s trying to bully me, and I don’t want him to see that it’s working. I can’t afford to let him catch me off guard; I know what he’s capable of doing to an opponent.

 

“Khthonia Fern,” Raz drawls, staring at me with that nearly black gaze. Something about the way he says my name makes me want to turn and run — and I almost do, but I can’t leave my back unprotected. That’d be begging for a quick death. “You’re leaving home at age, what, twenty-five, twenty-six? I left mine when I was fifteen. I’ve traveled beyond the four kingdoms, I’ve fought in wars. I’ve taken lives, and not merely in self-defense.” His eyes gleam in the icy moonlight. “And I’m a damn sight more prepared to deal with this situation than some lovesick, runaway girl with a toy sword.”

 

“I’m not lovesick,” I snarl at him, fury a decent substitute for actual bravery. “And for godssakes, so you fought in some skirmish between barbarian tribes — I’m positively terrified.”

 

Raz’s eyes flare in anger, and for a moment I’m not sure if he’s going to lunge at me, but I hold my ground.

 

“I’ll let that pass because you’re ignorant,” he says softly. “You couldn’t be expected to understand the gravity of what you’re so desperately trying to thrust yourself into.”

 

My cheeks burn under the force of his quiet condescension, and I tap the shamshir’s handle, doing my best to return his gaze in equal measure. “I didn’t bring this along because I thought I’d be making daisy chains.”

 

A bark of harsh laughter escapes Raz’s throat and he folds his arms over his chest, regarding me dubiously. “What do you think you’re doing? Trying to stop Prince Daschen from getting Princess Embla back safely? You’re no murderer.”

 

“Of course not, I’m going in Daschen’s place. I’m a better swordsman than he is, and I’m not going to let him get hurt.”

 

“Very humble about your abilities, aren’t you?”

 

I glare coldly at him. “Should I have stood aside and humbly let him die?”

 

“I suppose you believe if you bring Embla back safely, Prince Daschen will marry you instead of her?” Raz chuckles contemptuously again, and it’s almost as though he isn’t talking to me anymore. “That makes perfect sense … walking around like you’re living in some kind of bedtime story—”

 

I clench my jaw so hard that my teeth creak in protest. “What does it matter to you how I live my life?”

 

“Because it’s bound to get you killed,” Raz retorts sharply. “It very nearly did back at that cabin.”

 

I can’t help but stare at him, utterly baffled. “You just told me you’re a murderer, and I saw you kill someone with my own eyes, so I’m going to repeat myself: why do you care?”

 

“I killed that man to save your life!” Raz jabs his finger back in the direction from which we’ve come. “I’m not sure if you’re aware of how the world works, Khthonia, but he and that blonde friend of his weren’t inviting you in for a nice cup of tea and a catch-up.”

 

“Thank you for saving my life, Raz,” I snarl. What kind of a name is that, anyway? “I think I can take care of myself from now on.”

 

I move to step around him, but Raz shifts a few paces to the side to mirror me, frowning as he bodily blocks the trail.

 

“Go home, Khthonia,” he tells me coldly. “Don’t throw your life away on some harebrained quest that ends with a sword in your gut or a bullet in your brain.”

 

I draw the shamshir, holding it loosely at my side as my heart starts to pound with a nauseating insistence. “Move.”

 

Raz cocks his head, amused rather than threatened. “Are you sure you remember how to use that thing? I only ask because you didn’t seem to this morning.”

 

“I can handle myself just fine.”

 

Raz languidly tosses his backpack aside and we start to circle each other. There’s a rough oval of open space off to one side of the dirt track, and we wordlessly orbit into it, giving ourselves room to move. The twin axes are still strapped to his back, but he hasn’t made a move for either one.

 

“When I beat you, I’m going to tie you up and leave you here, cannibals or no,” Raz warns as he stalks around the perimeter of the hollow. “If you do manage to make it to Riverfall, I’ll be long gone, that evidence along with me.”

 

It’s all I can do not to think about the huge man from yesterday, and the way his meaty guts spilled out of that gaping maw Raz sliced through his middle. My stomach convulses, but I force myself to adopt that same cocky tone as Raz: “When I beat you, I’ll make sure to do you the same favor.”

 

Raz feints for me with a bare hand, and I pretend to stumble a little as I twitch away. I know he catches the movement — and he’s dismissive of me already, which means I’ve got a bit of an advantage, if I can make my move at the right time.

 

After a few more bluffs Raz tires of testing my defenses, and one of his axes sings through the air toward my fingers. I block the blow and push him back — but not nearly hard enough. He reels toward me again within moments, and I have to jump to avoid the scything sweep at my knees.

 

He’s almost ready.

 

I feign another mistake, dropping my shoulder this time, and Raz takes the bait. He really throws his weight into the blow, and I easily spin aside and kick the back of his knee so that he collapses.

 

I reassume a defensive posture as Raz rolls nimbly to his feet, grinning to mask my terror. “Awake now, aren’t you?”

 

“Oh, yes,” Raz breathes, dark eyes blazing at me.

 

He lunges again, and our blades flash with the moon’s silver light as we strike and parry, trading off who has the advantage and who’s testing whom. I hold my own against Raz surprisingly well — but then he’s obviously not going full force, as though reluctant to actually hurt me for whatever unfathomable reason. I have to catch him in a quick moment when his attention is divided, revealing some weakness he won’t think I can see, and then I can unravel him just like any other puzzle.

 

My moment comes when Raz’s weight is shifted wrong, and I lurch into the attack, spinning in a different direction than he’s anticipating. I slice upward at his throat, and he barely catches the blade with his axe before the sharp metal connects with his neck.

 

The blow forces Raz to stumble backward until he collides with a tree, and then my sword’s at his throat again. This is it, I’ve nearly won—

 

Raz’s hand is a blur as he reaches up over his shoulder and yanks the second axe free. I catch the handle in time with my free hand, but now the first curved blade has the shamshir hooked, holding me in place as he forces the second axe toward my neck. My body shudders with the force of fending him off, but it isn’t enough; his weapon keeps relentlessly twitching lower, pulling me into a deadly embrace until it’s within striking distance of my throat. 

 

I glare into his ferocious eyes as the sharp metal inches toward my skin. If this is how I’m going out, then I’m not going to give up — not even after the honed blade is embedded in my body and my blood’s gushing out to stain this unfamiliar ground.

 

“Enough!” Raz bellows, and we leap away from each other as he releases the pressure on the axe at my neck. We face each other, panting with exertion, and I try to ignore the pulled muscles in my forearm as I tighten my grip on the shamshir’s hilt. Godsdammit he’s strong!

 

“You’re deceptive,” Raz huffs, regarding me with something akin to grudging approval. “And a decent hand with that blowpipe. What do you know about the Riverfall law scholars?”

 

In truth, not much. So I tell him all I do know: “They study in pairs, a teacher and a student. And they’re always hooded.”

 

“So you can probably figure out my idea,” Raz says, and the corner of his mouth tightens as though he’s restraining a smirk.

 

I shake my head, mind whirling. I think I can sense his plan — but I don’t want to go along with it. I don’t know how much more of Raz I can stand, especially where we’re at odds with each other when all’s said and done and we both know it.

 

“You’ll have to work with someone else to get past the guards at the front of the library — and I’ll be in and out the fastest, so that might as well be me,” Raz says in that infuriatingly self-assured tone. “We can work together long enough to get what we’re after, and then go our separate ways once we’ve had a look at what Princess Embla’s abductors left behind.”

 

After everything I’ve seen, I have no doubt Raz is going to have some kind of decent plan — and given my unfamiliarity with Riverfall, it won’t be any contest to see who even gets to the library itself first.

 

But if I can get the evidence away from him first...

 

Raz extends a hand to me, still eyeing me cautiously. “Partners?”

 

I’ll have to be on my guard … but I don’t really have a better choice. If I try to go it alone, I’ve no doubt Raz will make it through the forest and into the heart of the library at ten times my speed. But if I’m patient, if I’m clever, I can take him by surprise, truly defeat him, and be on my way.

 

I have to try, otherwise this has all been in vain. 

 

I reluctantly shake Raz’s hand, and as he swings his pack back over his shoulders we continue moving along the moonlit trail in silence.

 

~

 

I still can’t tell where I stand with Raz as we fall back to walking, but I fully expect a blade between the ribs from him at some point. He strides beside me rather than ahead of me now, and I keep an eye on his hands. I won’t be caught unawares.

 

We skirt the treeline around a farming village, then duck back into the forest on the far side so that I can trade my maid’s clothes for a tunic and pants stolen off a line in someone’s yard. I feel bad about the theft, but walking into Riverfall wearing my uniform would be tantamount to suicide.

 

It’s the first time I’ve worn anything but the drab, bulky dress for the better part of ten years, and I almost don’t know myself without it. The trousers are too tight around my legs, but I remember the sensation from my childhood, and that’s oddly comforting — enough to ease my disquiet when I find a single silver coin in the pocket of the purloined pants.

 

Something urges me to fold the dress after I slide my leather jacket back over my shoulders, but grudging gratitude is the best I can manage as I bury it and my wrist alarum in a cluster of gnarled roots.

 

“Hurry up,” Raz hisses from the far side of the tree where I’m changing.

 

Already I worry about how thoroughly Raz might’ve been able to analyze my fighting style from our sparring in the forest. I’ve been out of practice for so long, only playing with pokers and ladles in the kitchen to amuse Talini, and I’m sure my defense patterns are riddled with glaring holes. 

 

I have a decent idea of the surly man’s approach — intermittently aggressive and far too casual, meant to lull his opponent into complacency and then overwhelm them with his true strength — so I think I might be able to handle myself if forced to … but if we truly come to blows, I’ll certainly have a tough fight on my hands.

 

I apologize to Raz, and pretend to hurry — but I’m playing a long game here, too, and pretend to be flustered from his nagging as we keep moving. Just as I deceived him in our fighting, if I can make him think I’m just a bit more blundering and distracted than I actually am, I might be able to get an advantage over him when I need it most.

© 2018-2020 Elegy Goldsmith

This site was designed with the
.com
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now