alliance

04. Signals

I’ve been watching for a sign of the Untarnished Empress’s favor since leaving Triptyllach Castle, but it isn’t until the evening before we’re due to reach Riverfall that I see the wolf.

 

Raz is somewhere ahead on the path; he’s not one for looking back, I’ve found, and given how little conversation passes between us it’s easier to fall back a ways and get some space to myself. We started walking earlier than expected tonight, and I’m still fuming at myself about our sparring match from days ago, waiting for him to double-cross me. In fact, I’m so lost in my own self-recrimination that I find myself gazing at the creature before I truly see it.

 

The wolf’s coal-dark fur blends perfectly with the moonlit shadows, and it’s only after a few long moments of hard staring that I can properly make it out against the tree-lined hillock. It’s massive, shoulders probably reaching as high as my chest, and one amber eye glows at me over a muzzle streaked with whitish scars. The right side of its face is sunken, charcoal fur knitted together where its other eye should be.

 

“Hurry up,” Raz calls back to me, his aggravation more distinct than his words. “We need to keep moving.”

 

Yelling back to him is unthinkable; if the wolf really is a messenger from the long-dead empress, disturbing it would be a sort of sacrilege. Its ears are swiveled toward me, but they twitch in irritation at the sound of Raz’s voice. A breeze nudges through the forest, setting all the leaves to shivering, and the creature lifts its huge muzzle, the longer tendrils of its ruff rippling like the trees as it scents the wind.

 

“Blessed be the Untarnished Empress,” I murmur. “Blessed be her memory.”

 

A stick cracks nearby, breaking the spell, and the wolf lopes off, quickly losing itself among the forest’s gloom. Only now that it’s gone can I feel my heart’s frantic thudding, and I turn away from the footpath, instinctively heading for the main road in search of something that I can only hope is close by.

 

Aerona’s never blessed me with a sign of her favor before. I have to thank her for giving me the confidence to keep going.

 

This close to the city it’s only a few minutes’ walk from the smuggler’s trail to the wide, flat dirt track that leads to Riverfall. I emerge from the thicker forest in a sort of daze, blundering onto the road before I remember to look around for unfriendly faces. 

 

Thankfully I’m alone in the darkness — and my footsteps quicken as I catch sight of the carved stone shrine a hearty stone’s throw ahead, just below a rise where the path towards the city is lost to sight. A statuette of the empress stands at the shrine’s heart, surrounded by years’ remains of incense and flowers, and a welcome flame gutters on the oil burner before her.

 

Back at the castle, devotions to the empress were simply a part of our daily schedule, but since leaving I haven’t actually taken a moment to honor her. More than once I’ve rued my own lack of foresight — if only I’d thought to swipe a handful of incense cones from the Myre family stash, it might’ve been enough to allay my worry — but shrines such as these exist for travelers to pay their respects. I’m doubly blessed to find one of these when I need it most.

 

The cramping in my chest eases as I get closer to the shrine and see the familiar rectangle of an offering box; the lone silver coin I found in the pocket of these trousers may never find its way back to its proper owner, but at least its presence won’t continue to accuse me of my theft any longer.

 

Yet just as I’m about to drop the coin in the offering box’s slot a familiar hand catches my wrist, twisting just enough to make me drop the chill metal disc. The silver flashes down into Raz’s other hand, and he reels backward as I spring toward him, trying to grab it back. 

 

“What the fuck d’you think you’re doing?!”

 

“You want to take some incense and pray to an invisible dead woman? Fine,” Raz snaps, the silver coin lost in his clenched fist. “But if you’re only going to throw this away, might as well give it to me.”

 

Invisible dead woman?” I gape at him, half-fearing a thunderbolt from the cloudless vault. There are plenty who may not be as fervent in their devotions to the empress, me foremost among them — but what Raz is saying is outright blasphemy. “I can’t just take incense to burn to the empress without leaving something. That’s stealing of the worst order!”

 

His laugh is raw, cruel, and he holds the silver coin out of my reach. “You came into possession of this just as lawlessly. Besides, Aerona’s dead.”

 

I glower at him, doing everything in my power to keep myself from snatching the shamshir from its scabbard. The ancient scars on the backs of my calves throb at his disrespect; if I didn’t need him so badly, I might just let myself attack him. “All the more reason to pray for her mercy.”

 

“Out here in the real world — outside a castle’s gates — sometimes the only mercy’s a fully belly.” Raz leans toward me, trying to intimidate me, perhaps. “Dead people don’t need to eat. I do. And since you owe me your life, I’ll be keeping this in return.” He shakes his head, cursing under his breath as he tucks the coin away into a jacket pocket before I can stop him.

 

My cheeks burn with righteous fury as an old phrase of my father’s rises to my lips: “Only a scoundrel or a rogue cares more for silver than their soul!”

 

“Soul…” Raz lets the word hang, dissolving into another mirthless laugh that freezes my blood. He truly doesn’t believe in Aerona’s mercy.

 

The tattoo of hoofbeats reaches us at the same time, but I’m flat-footed in my anger, and Raz yanks me into the underbrush just before a pair of horsed sentries crest the rise in the road. I peek through the brambles just long enough to sight the familiar livery of the Vanan Royal Guard, and then press myself against the tree’s wide trunk, too scared to even breathe as they draw closer.

 

The soldiers’ mounts slow as they near the shrine, and for a heart-stopping moment I think they’re going to see us — but then the tempo of hooves against packed earth quickens again, and they ride off into the lengthening shadows.

 

Raz is so livid that I can see tendons jumping in his temple. His voice is ominously low as he points after the departing riders. “Still feeling overwhelmed by piety?”

 

“I would’ve gotten out of sight in time,” I retort as he turns away, stomping back through the underbrush toward the smugglers’ path.

 

His raven-dark hair flashes in the dappled light as he shakes his head. “And your precious incense? Even if you’d had time to crush the embers, the smell would’ve given you away. They would’ve stopped, found you, and you’d be on your way to a hangman’s noose.”

 

I frown, gnawing my lip with consternation. Why did the empress send an emissary like the wolf if it was only going to lead me to the edge of trouble? Is she trying to remind me to stay humble … or has she even been listening to me at all? 

 

The sudden surge of religious zeal vanishes, leaving me hollow and uncertain as we find our way back onto the hidden trail. All that I’ve endured so far could’ve been taken back in a single moment if not for Raz’s cold cynicism. The wolf was strange, true, but maybe it was nothing more than a living creature.

 

I wanted to believe she was watching over me, but instead I almost got myself killed. Again.

 

I know Raz is right, but his godsdamn smugness is too overbearing to admit the truth — and worse, as we forge onward in our now-familiar silence, inexplicably, he seems to stay closer to me than before.

 

~

 

The silver coin lands in the dirt before me with a soft thud, glittering in the sterling dawn.

 

I’m up to my elbows in fish guts — my suspicions about the shadows lurking in the nearby stream yielded a fine catch of salvelina — so I only glance up at Raz, raising one eyebrow to ask him what holier-than-thou wretchedness he’s up to now.

 

His angular face is twisted strangely, like someone’s forcing him to do something unpleasant. “It’s yours. I stand by what I said — it was damn foolish to go out on the open road like that — but I shouldn’t have taken this from you.”

 

“Thanks,” I say just as woodenly.

 

Apology accepted, Raz nods and sits down on a log he’s rolled close to our impromptu fire pit, gathering kindling into the heart of a stone circle and propping it up in an ever-growing cone. “You’re not the sort I expected to find offering obeisances.”

 

Maybe it’s his unexpected honesty, but I feel compelled to admit the truth: “I haven’t exactly been diligent with my prayers for a few years now.”

 

His mouth twists in something akin to a wry smile. “And you thought today would be the day you made up for that?”

 

“Seeing the wolf on the ridge felt like a sign.”

 

“Ah, so you wanted to believe the Untarnished Empress was watching over you.” I’m expecting laughter, but Raz regards me soberly over the spray of twigs. “I’m sure you’re not the first to think that sort of thing.”

 

For a split second I’m not sitting here in the woods, so far from home — I’m back in Daschen’s chamber, cradling his limp body as his blood stains my skin. Just as quickly the vision vanishes, and I swallow hard, trying to stop my fingers from trembling.

 

“I’ve made some mistakes lately, so I suppose I was looking for something to tell me I’m not on the wrong path.”

 

“Right path, wrong path…” Raz shrugs. “Whatever you choose to think about your own actions is your decision.”

 

I squint at him in disbelief. After a decade living alongside people who hardly ever said what they mean, his nonchalant attitude is shocking. “You can’t believe that.”

 

“In point of fact, I do.” He’s assembling the beginnings of the fire so deftly that he hardly has to look at it, and his dark eyes follow me in the dim morning light. “You live here, inside Char, so you grew up being told that the empress was a peaceful figure, someone to invoke for your protection. Had you grown up elsewhere, you might think differently — of both her and yourself.”

 

I yank a coil of black nameless something out of the second fish in my catch. “If I’d been born a barbarian, you mean.”

 

Raz laughs in an exaggerated way that makes me think he’s making fun of me again — and I feel myself bristling afresh.

 

“Scattered, inbred tribes constantly at each other’s throats — what else would you call them?” I shoot back. “They can’t be that impressive if they haven’t managed to breach our borders in centuries.”

 

Raz holds up a finger. “Ah, but that’s assuming outsiders want to come into the four kingdoms at all.”

 

“Why wouldn’t they?” My own voice sounds haughty amid the chill birches. “I doubt living in the wilderness is better than becoming civilized. I miss living inside already.”

 

“But assuming outsiders were hells-bent on breaching the four kingdoms, what’s been keeping them these past hundreds of years? A centuries-long tea party?”

 

I watch him carefully. Is he insane? “That’s why the gatehouses exist: to push them back.”

 

“You mean to tell me that a glorified circle of huts filled with underprepared soldiers are enough to keep hordes of lawless attackers at bay?” Raz smirks. “Which is more likely: that childish legend, or the notion that there are more interesting things outside Char than within it?”

 

“You’re mad,” I mutter, returning to the growing pile of fish innards before me. It’s deeply troubling that a man so well-armed as Raz has these sort of heretical thoughts, and the hairs on my arms stand on end as a slew of new, horrifying ideas occur to me. He’s certainly no woodsman … is he an assassin, or completely unhinged?

 

The motion in my peripheral vision ceases as Raz sits back, watching me. “What if I could prove it to you?”

 

My tongue feels like it’s turned to wood, and I answer only slowly, indicating the southern mountain even though they’re barely visible against the gloomy sky. “You can’t. The nearest border’s a day’s ride from here — and even if we got there, the guardsmen would just send us right back to the castle to be executed.”

 

“On the contrary, I can prove it. Right here, and right now.” Raz glances around as though worried the trees are spying on us, and then drags his rucksack close, the fire forgotten for the moment. His dark gaze blazes at me with the intensity of a black sun. “You must promise to never speak of what I’m about to show you, for your own sake”

 

I nod warily. The short dagger I’ve been using to clean the fish is slimy, but I surreptitiously wipe it against my boot to get a firmer grip in case this is the moment of betrayal I’ve been waiting for. “Sure.”

 

Swear, dammit,” he snaps. “Like your life depends on it.”

 

“I swear,” I snarl.

 

My anger seems to sate Raz, and he fumbles in his rucksack. Yet it’s not a weapon that he pulls from the bag but a small black rectangle of battered wood. The brass fittings holding the seamed halves of the palm-sized thing together look weathered, as though they’ve been reaffixed several times; the glass panels set in the object’s face protect queer markings, and strange needles pointing to meticulously hand-detailed numbers.

 

The hairs on my arms stand on end, as though the device dropped from the heavens into Raz’s lap. It may as well have; I’ve never seen anything even remotely like it.

 

I shrink back as Raz moves to sit next to me, fiddling with a series of knobs along the wooden box’s lengthwise edge, and yanks a thin metal projection out of its side, extending it from the box like magic. “Just listen.”

 

I cautiously edge closer to Raz as he proffers the box, and once I’m reassured he’s not preparing to smash me in the side of the head with it — after all, he still could be planning to race me to Riverfall, improbable though that now seems —  I put my ear to the glittering, fabric-like mesh circle at one end of the thing as he indicates.

 

“Dawn,” a strange, sibilant voice whispers in my ear. “Message repeating: dawn broadcast, Godsfall Watch—”

 

I jump away, the trees echoing with the reverberations of my shrieking and Raz’s hissing answer. “Shut up! D’you want to bring the whole forest down on our heads?” he demands, glowering at me as he flicks a few knobs on the wooden box. “You really do have a death wish, don’t you?”

 

‘Th-there’s a voice,” My mind whirls with panic, and I clutch at the knife. “H-how-? Where’s it coming from? How are you doing that?

 

Raz’s gaze flits around, ensuring we’re still alone as he collapses the metal projection and shoves the battered box back into his rucksack. He shifts back to the fire, sparking the flint before answering — and his voice is dark as grave dirt. “There’s much more out there in the world than people in Char think, Khthonia … and there are others who will kill to keep that secret. Believe me in that much, at least.”


Raz is mad, he must be … but there’s no denying what I heard.

 

That morning he falls asleep long before I do. I know we need to be rested to attempt any sort of entry to the law library, but the memory of the ghostly voice haunts me, chasing me into a dreamless sleep like an unceasing echo.

 

~

 

Riverfall, as it turns out, is quite aptly named. The city perches on a cliff overlooking a thousand-foot cataract, and some of its towers lean precariously over the thunderous drop. I’ve never realized how grey and frigid Triptyllach Castle looks until I see Riverfall’s pale stones glimmering under the light from an overcast sun, and I find myself having to slow to keep even with Raz on the low, wide bridge that leads to its gates.

 

Through it all, memories of Raz’s strange wooden box and the voice I heard last night consume me every few minutes, clawing at my attention like ravenous beasts. How can he simply walk around like this, as though nothing is amiss, when those sorts of voices are out there — unless he already knows where they’re coming from?

 

The Godsfall… I can’t understand what that has to do with anything, or why the strange voice mentioned it. Yet I force the terrified whirl of questions from my mind as we enter Riverfall. They won’t help me now; I have enough to worry about as things stand.

 

The city’s streets are even narrower than our octagonal courtyards back home. I feel entirely too hemmed in as we meld into single-file lines that crawl through the architecturally overgrown streets like ants. Raz moves purposefully through the chaotic jumble, his dark chestnut hair jouncing as he glances back every so often to make sure I’m still in tow. I’m distracted by some of the brilliantly colored outfits of the passersby, but the stakes are too high for me to forget myself completely.

 

Raz abruptly stops at the end of one particularly torturous alley as it spills out onto a wider cobblestoned roadway. The grand entrance to a dark, almost bruise-purple stone building stands diagonally across the street from us. A trickle of people pass through the carved rectangular archway, stopping briefly at the guards clustered in its shadowy antechamber before continuing inside — and as I’d heard, they’re all cowled and traveling in pairs.

 

The thunder of water sounds louder here. As I gaze up at the law library’s heavyset spires, I get the sense that the building is situated right against the retaining wall that holds the city back from collapsing over the falls. Maybe even here there’s precious little underfoot.

 

“We’ll have to make our move from without,” Raz mutters, scratching his stubbled jaw.

 

I frown at him, trying to think about anything but the yawning chasm beneath our feet. “Meaning?”

 

He casually slumps against one of the buildings hemming the alley. “We wait.”

​

The delay’s another aggravation, but we’ve only been loitering a quarter-hour before a pair of anonymous figures swathed in intricately embroidered robes shuffle out past the guards and make their way along the street.

 

Raz nudges my arm, and we amble after the duo. We don’t get too close, but they’re never out of our sight.

 

The scholars make their way to a stall on a side street a few blocks from the library and haggle with the mousy clerk — though from this distance I can’t tell whether they’re actually speaking with the woman or just gesticulating furiously at her.

 

The shopkeeper hurries through a door into the back of her kiosk, and Raz glances around, surveying. It’s a fairly narrow byway, and there’s no one in sight. 

 

“Do it now or do it never,” Raz mutters as he surreptitiously pulls the blowpipe from his pack, nodding at the cowled figures as he hands it to me. The darts he gives me along with it are different from the ones I used earlier; they’re balanced almost exactly the same, but just behind the barb there’s a glass container that holds a sickly bluish liquid I wouldn’t fain get pricked with.

 

“It’s not poison,” Raz offers, as though that will make my aim more precise.

 

I don’t ask questions, just hit my targets with methodical precision, and tuck the two remaining darts into the barrel of the blowgun for safekeeping, pleased to watch the hooded figures drop within seconds. Less pleasing is the way we have to tug the unconscious monks into a nearby alcove, divesting them of their robes and tucking their limp bodies safely out of sight before the shopkeeper returns.

 

“This isn’t going to work,” I huff from beneath my cloak as we awkwardly move off.  The garments aren’t anywhere near a good fit, and mine’s so long that I have to stand on tiptoe to keep from tripping on the hem. The thing reeks of old man’s head, and I can barely see the ground in front of me unless I keep my head tilted too far back for comfort. “No one’s going to believe I’m a monk in this thing.”

 

“Nonsense, you look lovely,” Raz mutters dryly from somewhere off to my right. “I’ll admit, blue really is more your color, but I’m sure you’ll manage.”

 

My mouth compresses in a painful frown. Blue? Only after a moment do I recall the only garment of that color that I’ve worn in years, and my heart thuds sickeningly. 

 

The dress … Daschen’s ball. Godsdammit, Raz remembers me!

 

“You saw that?” I wish I could glare at him, or yell — or something — but a low hiss is the best I can manage without betraying us to passersby. “Why didn’t you tell me right away that you recognized me from the castle — or that you knew I was lying about who I was?”

 

Raz’s tone is so icy that frost crystals crawl in my veins. “I didn’t know for certain that you were lying until you told me otherwise. Furthermore, the exact nature of your connection with Prince Daschen was and remains none of my business, Ash.”

 

Daschen is the last thing I want to be thinking about right now. The mere mention of his name unbalances me to the point where I almost totter into a fruit cart. “That’s not what I meant!”

 

Raz snorts derisively. “Just pretend you’re dancing, I’m sure you’ll manage.”

 

Given the bulky nature of the cowled robes I can’t tell how he’s carrying his rucksack, but I can hear things jangling around beside me, and my sudden anger makes me lash out at him: “Can’t you stop clanking? You’re going to get us killed!”

 

“Shut it, we’re supposed to’ve taken a vow of silence,” Raz hisses back, but the jarring noises lessen somewhat, and then I can’t say anything more because the polished eggplant steps of the library are under our feet.

 

Godsdamn Raz and his infuriating sense of timing!

 

I slide back far enough to keep Raz in sight, and after some strange gesticulations from his quarter, the guards let us pass through the library’s entrance. At first there’s only the hem of his robe and the painstakingly engraved stone floor before me, but suddenly the floor gives way to a spiral staircase down, and I can see our surroundings beneath the cowl’s edge.

 

The main body of the law library is a domed depression ringed with a myriad of staircases similar to this one. Catwalks extend upward into the dome and outward into wings of stacks, while larger apertures at regular intervals on the highest catwalk hint at the entrances to the circlet of towers overhead. The base of the central chamber flickers with light from hundreds of azure lanterns; they glitter like underwater fireflies from this vantage.

 

“Where do we go?” I whisper to Raz.

 

There’s a glimmer of burlap movement as he looks up. “Follow the guards.”

 

I surreptitiously glance around until I see what he’s indicating. Most of the library’s hooded scholars move about purposefully, but here and there pairs seem to be lurking rather than working. Tracing a way between them, they form a clear path into the upper catwalks.

 

We shuffle along the endless corkscrewing stairs down, up, and across a suspended walkway through the center of the dome before passing the silent guardians without incident. It’s unsettlingly easy, and the word trap reverberates through my mind, conjuring up troubling images of my body on a pike. 

 

Raz turns to and fro amid the stacks, seemingly uncertain, and we meander through corridors of endless bookshelves before finding our way to a door flanked by another set of cowled sentries.

 

He stops before the anonymous scholars, but they neither speak nor make any move for the door they’re protecting. When he moves to step between them, though, the hooded figures draw shoulder to shoulder, blocking his way, and we’re forced to retreat into a row of stacks to regroup.

 

“What in the hells was that?” I whisper furiously, dragging the cowl back off my head once we’re out of sight and earshot.

 

Raz follows suit and rakes his fingers through his dark hair, puzzled and irritated. “Scholars are vowed to silence, it wasn’t as though I could exactly ask them!”

 

I’m sincerely tempted to strangle him. “But that was your great and mighty plan — just walking right in and waving your arms around like you knew what you were doing?”

 

“At least I had a plan,” he hisses. “We’re nearly there.”

 

“Nearly isn’t good enough, idiot!”

 

Raz glares at me and waves a dismissive hand. “Just give me a minute to think.”

 

But we don’t have a minute — familiar voices warble through the library’s otherworldly silence. My gut churns with terror as I recognize Daschen’s familiar timbre issuing from the sunken main chamber, and it’s a fair bet the reedier tenor belongs to Soames. 

 

I tiptoe to the nearby balcony to confirm my hunch — and though I only catch a flash of Daschen’s golden hair down in the library’s central cavity, it’s enough.

 

If they’re here, we have to move. Now.

 

Raz frowns to himself, his head twitching ever-so-slightly as he thinks, but there’s a plan taking shape in my head, too — and after witnessing the spectacular failure of his stand-there-and-wait strategy, I’m inclined to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

 

I’m at the end of the row of stacks within moments, dropping the blowpipe out of my sleeve and into my waiting fingers, and swinging the weapon’s nose around the corner ahead of me. The two door sentries collapse before they even know I was there; once their twitching limbs lie still, I hurry over and yank the now-empty drugged darts out of their necks.

 

Footsteps draw close behind me, and Raz catches up just as I swing the door open, murder in his pitch-dark eyes. At least after taking such a huge risk the door key was tucked in one unconscious man’s belt — and even Raz’s fury can’t dampen my triumph. “Khthonia, what the fuck did you do?”

 

“I took care of it,” I tell the older man grimly, grabbing the skeletal key and catching hold of the unconscious man underneath what are presumably his arms. There’s an alcove just along this wall where I can leave him, and while the spot is still fully visible along one arrow-straight row of stacks, at least it won’t be quite so obvious what’s going on if someone thinks to check the now-unguarded door.

 

Raz stares searchingly at me as he tugs the other unconscious scholar out of the way. “You’re quite a violent woman, aren’t you?”

 

“Must be why you’re so fond of me,” I mutter, glowering at him with equal force.

 

He almost laughs at that — I can tell from the way one corner of his mouth abruptly jerks, as though he’s catching himself a quarter-second too late. Crazy old man … he’s like a mad dog with more bluster than bite.

 

We loop our cowls back up over our heads and hurry past the door, which unlocks easily. The hallway beyond follows the curve of the central dome’s perimeter and climbs into the ring of towers like a spiraling mountain ascent.

 

Doors set in the corridor’s outer wall lead to individual examination chambers containing tables and glass cabinets laden with all sorts of incomprehensible metal instruments. Each holds a half-moon window that stares into the sterling sky; Riverfall is a distant thought, a dream lost somewhere below.

 

Most of the examination rooms are closed, but the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I peer past one of the open doors to find Mr. Soames’ iron lockbox sitting on a table. They never imagined they’d have to guard it here, in their innermost sanctum.

 

Now is the only chance I’ll get.

 

I dart into the room, hoping I can get slam the door and lock myself in before Raz can follow — but he’s on my back like a shadow, and doesn’t seem to notice my furtive attempt to close him out. Godsdammit!

 

Once the door is securely shut, Raz throws off his cloak and peers at the lockbox, too distracted to notice my aggravation even as his gaze flicks to mine. “This is it — you’re certain?”

 

I have the advantage. I’ve seen the box before, so I can see the puzzle lock holding the hasp shut has already been removed. Before Raz can react, I throw the iron lockbox open and plunge my hand inside to grab its contents.

 

My fingers close around a cubic wooden box a little smaller than my fist, and I reel away from Raz, headed back toward the only way in or out of the room. I’ve no idea what’s in my hand, but the only thing that matters is that I got to it before Raz did.

 

I’m expecting defeat or anger from Raz, but he doesn’t evince either. He merely raises an eyebrow at me, reaches into the lockbox, and comes away with his fingers closed tight like mine.

 

No...

 

“Each of us needs to see what the other has,” Raz says levelly. “If the kidnappers left two clues, there must have been a reason for each.”

 

I narrow my eyes at him. “You’re bluffing.”

 

He opens and closes his fingers like a flash of lightning, and I catch a glint of brass — but attached to what, I can’t say.

 

“Count of three?” Raz asks.

 

I reluctantly nod. This is the second time he’s managed to outmaneuver me. There won’t be a third.

 

“Three, two, one—”

 

Raz opens his fingers, and I pull the wooden box open. A glass lens like an oversized monocle rests in his palm, broad and flat like a coin, and bordered by a thick brass setting.

 

I almost forget to look at the thing in the box as I open it, but once I do I know I’ve won this toss-up. The delicately wrought crystal flower is set with a flat, perforated metal bottom that represents a calyx, and though I don’t know what this object is or does, either, someone clearly invested a lot of time in making it. 

 

The blossom’s stigma is a slender tube topped by a fiery diamond; though its beauty is undeniable, it’s what the thing might symbolize or where it might hail that’s important. In any event, it’s bound to lead further than a glass lens — and the expression in Raz’s eyes tells me he’s thinking the same thing.

 

Clattering echoes in the corridor, and hands slam against the outside of the door, frustrated to find it locked. “She’s in here!”

 

“Move!” Raz snarls.

 

I scramble out of the way as he flips the examination table on its side, wedging it under the door’s metal handle. The solid stone rectangle shudders uselessly, now twice blocked — but it won’t hold forever, and there’s nowhere for us to run.

 

Fuck!

 

Voices from the corridor shout about battering their way through, and I pick out Daschen’s familiar tenor through the fray again, muffled and nearly indistinct through all the scuffling: “Khthonia, it’s all right, just come out! You won’t be harmed, I swear it!”

 

The cry guts me, but I force myself away, and close the wooden box with quaking fingers. Now I have to figure out how to escape a room from which there is no escape. There’s only the half-moon window and the death-dealing fall beneath — and I’m not yet so desperate that I’ll take that lethal route.

 

Raz grabs my shoulders, his eyes blazing with fury. “You knew they were coming?”
 

“—break it down!” Mr. Soames hollers at someone, his thin voice even squeakier with excitement. “The girl’s in there, just break it down!”

 

“I heard them below, just a few minutes ago,” I mumble, half-dazed. It’s like Daschen doesn’t even know Raz is here with me — he thinks I’m still on my own. Would he want me to come with him now? From the way Mr. Soames is shouting, it doesn’t sound likely. “There were just a few moments … I’m sorry, I just knew we had to move, that’s why I did everything so fast—”

 

“I have a way out.” Raz grips my arms bruise-tight, and the ferocity in his gaze makes me snap back to myself. “But I want something from you, Khthonia.”
 

Of course — the crystal flower. I think I got a decent enough look at the thing to be able to sketch it, but the memory won’t be anywhere near as useful as the object itself.

 

There aren’t any moves left for me to play, so I nod dumbly and offer up the wooden box as the battering on the door redoubles. I wish I knew of any way out of this predicament save this, but if the men outside catch me, it’s all over. This will all have been for nothing.

 

To my astonishment, Raz frowns, and gently pushes the box back toward me.

 

“Work with me,” he says gruffly. “Find your own way out if you want — or come with me, and we’ll get Princess Embla back together.”

 

I glare at him. “Why should I trust you?”

 

“Because you tried to double-cross me, not the other way around. And because I understand the value of having someone to watch your back.” Raz leans closer to be heard over the pounding at the door, the tip of his nose nearly brushing mine as his grip on my shoulders eases.

 

I stare hard at him. “You don’t mean that.”

 

“Better to work together than keep getting in each other’s way. Besides, I told you, you’re going to get killed running around on your own — and you aren’t going to give up. That should’ve been obvious to me a hell of a lot sooner.”

 

I shake my head in instinctive defiance, strangely unsettled by Raz’s touch. Even without the evidence in hand I could keep on going on my own. I could do it, I know I could — but the hinges on the heavy stone door are starting to crack, and soon they’ll give way completely. Unless I can teach myself to evaporate there’s no getting out of this room without Raz’s help, certainly not before Mr. Soames and his cronies bash their way through.

 

If I really do want to save the princess, and Daschen in the process, I’ll probably need Raz’s help, too — though I’d certainly never admit as much. There’s more to him than meets the eye. That whispering box of his, the way he slips through the world’s cracks … he’s dangerous. And my only hope.

 

“Fine,” I snap. “But if you screw me over I will make it my personal mission — living or dead — to make you suffer in eternal hellfire.”

 

Raz nods, a grim smile curving his lips. “Fair enough.”

 

We solemnly clasp forearms, sealing our accord, and I tuck the wooden box into my jacket pocket as Raz leads me over to the wide ledge beside the half-moon window. He moves to boost me up, but I scramble up unaided. I can do that much on my own.

 

Raz hauls a black leather harness out of his bag and hands it to me, curtly directing me how to fasten it while he fiddles with something on the straps of his backpack. The interconnected loops wrap around each of my limbs, and I’m suddenly grateful I’m wearing pants instead of my maid’s skirts.

 

Once I’ve got the thing on, Raz checks over all the harness’s fastenings, tugging quickly to test each of them in turn. Then he wraps his arm around my waist, spinning me so that my shoulder blades are pressed against his chest. He’s as solid and unforgiving as a stone wall, and something deep in my belly lurches again as he pulls me close. 

 

The harness tugs at my curves as the door to the corridor wobbles diagonally, its last defenses about to give way.

 

“What are you doing?” I demand, trying to turn to get a look. He’s attached a coinlike metal disc to the window, and it starts to trill so shrilly that my teeth vibrate in my skull.

 

“Head down,” Raz commands through the deafening sound.

 

What the—

 

Raz yanks an axe free from his back and leans away from the window. Then he tightens his arm around my waist, shielding me with his body as he brings the weapon crashing down past us to shatter through the glass.

 

The noise is colossal even over the din of the crumbling door. Raw wind suddenly screams around my ears, the frigid air making my head contract and stomach lurch with vertigo. I can see over the edge of the cataract from here, can trace with my eyes every jagged hitch of the cliff as it plunges down into the ghostly grey oblivion of the mists far below.

 

As soon as I see the drop, I know I can’t do this. I’ve never been comfortable with heights, but this is a waking nightmare.

 

The axe must be safely fastened on Raz’s back again, because his arms abruptly lock around me like a cage.

 

“Trust me,” he mutters, his lips grazing the shell of my ear.

 

There’s no time to react, not even a moment for me to beg him to leave me behind. The void rips the breath from my lungs as Raz leans backward out the window, pulling me with him as the stone door finally surrenders to our pursuers and we plummet away into space with barely a whisper.

© 2018-2020 Elegy Goldsmith

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