Raz’s voice is an exhilarated shout, and I try to find my way upright. It’s difficult to figure out where I am as the world makes its way back to me — up and down have become wriggly notions — but eventually I’m able to parse out what’s river and rock and forest and sky.
Memories of our heart-stopping fall come rushing back, and I roll into a sitting position, spluttering on the unexpected faceful of water. Riverfall is a mere ledge high overhead, a dark chunk in the cloudy sky. I’ve washed up on a flat rock a fair distance downriver from the clifftop city.
We shouldn’t have survived. How the hells is this possible?
Raz jogs along the shore, completely drenched, and plunges into the eddy with me seemingly without regard for getting wet all over again. I shriek in protest as he plunges his hand into my coat pocket, but he’s just digging for the wooden box. The crystal flower within has miraculously survived this journey intact, cushioned by the velvet mold that cradles it in its box.
“H-How?” I stammer. My left cheek is numb, like I got dead drunk and passed out on my face.
“Parachute,” Raz says quickly, and another hazy memory drifts back to me: cloth snapping taut over our heads as we screamed toward the river far below.
I stagger backward as my knees start to tremor. “Oh. Well then.”
“Now let’s have a better look at you,” Raz murmurs to the flower — and then yelps in surprise, nearly dropping it as a brief but intense buzzing emanates from its translucent form. He barely manages to catch the thing, juggling it between his hands mere inches from the river’s surface.
I bite back a laugh. Apparently I’m not the only thing around here that’s displeased about being dragged along with Raz.
He holds the flower up to the light, examining it carefully now, and mutters something under his breath that’s either in a foreign language or otherwise so incomprehensible that it may as well be.
I glower at him, silently waiting.
“Koregon,” Raz says when he decides to start talking to me again. His brow unknits as he utters the word, and he meets my gaze. “There’s a man there, an inventor — he’ll be able to identify this.”
“You mean this isn’t like your wooden box thing?”
He shakes his head, more troubled than I’ve ever seen him. “It’s a whole different sort of power mechanism … I’ve never seen its like. Not even—” He breaks off for a moment before finishing: “—elsewhere.”
“But it’ll take forever to reach Koregon!” The walled island city sits at the mouth of the Ibernum River as it opens into the sea — and though I think there’s a bend of the river somewhere nearby, I’m pretty sure it’s on the other side of some fairly steep hills. Hiking down to the estuary will take at least a week, and that’s assuming we don’t get one final snowstorm of the season to slow us down.
That doesn’t even account for the rumors about Koregon — city of lawlessness, situated between the four kingdoms and ruled by none. It pays tribute to each of the four, of course, and they each provide a share of guards to patrol its streets, but the sloppy bureaucracy is widely known to fertilize a thriving black market. The Ecumercurial Council has tried to close the island city down any number of times, but it stubbornly refuses to be tamed.
“Koregon,” Raz repeats firmly. He turns and sloshes toward the embankment, looking to and fro to get his bearings as he walks.
I follow, but the implications of our escape are only now starting to hit me. I’ve agreed to follow this thing through with Raz, for godssakes. Not only am I not rid of him, I’ve now signed on for who knows how much more of his charming company.
Raz picks a direction and starts off, probably just as lost as he was in the law library stacks. “Come on, keep up.”
“What if I don’t come with you?” I blurt out. He may have both pieces of evidence in his possession, but there’s no shackle around my wrist explicitly binding us together.
Raz doesn’t slow, just spins and walks backward as he calls to me from across the growing distance. “You will. You want to get Princess Embla back safely, and you know you stand the best chance of doing that with me. That’s why you didn’t go back to your prince when he called you.”
I grit my teeth at his presumptuousness. Never in my life have I wanted to smack someone so badly as right now — not even Daschen at his most imperious. “He’s not my prince, you bearded halfwit!” I bellow after him.
“If you want proof of whether sticking with me is to your benefit, consider this,” Raz adds, steadfastly ignoring my ill temper as he sloshes away. “We just broke into the Riverfall Law Library, of all places, and everything went more or less as intended, so you can’t be upset about that.”
Aggravatingly, he’s not wrong. And our near run-in with Princess Embla’s other would-be rescuers yielded one more bit of hope: at least now I’m sure Daschen’s all right — and hopefully I’ve again slowed him a bit, giving me time enough to clear some real danger out of the way.
It’s no sign from Aerona, but maybe I’m on the right path after all.
A smirk touches the corner of Raz’s mouth as I trudge after him, and he turns forward once more, not slowing to let me catch up. That’s fine — I need some space to myself to face up to this wretched turn of affairs anyway.
“Stop digging yourself in deeper,” I furiously mutter to myself. Raz is right about one thing: if I really don’t start watching my step, I probably will end up dead, and all of this will have been in vain.
We sleep in the forest for a few hours and use the night to cross the intervening hills, arriving at a port village beside the Ibernum River the next morning. The hamlet is far from our destination, but it’s only then that I learn Raz hasn’t been planning on following the river all the way to Koregon.
Not from the banks, at any rate.
The port’s mud-walled buildings extend down to the river in a low slope, and steep bluffs oversee the smooth but fast-moving current on either side of the town. A massive paddle boat is tethered to the dock with its prow facing downriver, and from the flurry of activity at its flank, it looks like the ship’s about to cast off.
“I don’t like open water,” I mutter as we stare down at the paddle boat from higher ground.
Raz looks askance at me. “Can’t you swim?”
“I can. Father took us to Lake Lyenar when I was young.” Mother and I had only done a bit of swimming at the very edge; I shake my head at the horror-laced remembrance, the panic of being suspended at the horizon between two worlds. “But I don’t like not knowing what’s beneath me. Let’s keep going on foot.”
“Judging from how you handled the river, you’re a decent enough swimmer to risk it. Besides, this is a canyon, and a small one at that. Hardly open water.”
“Aw, thanks, that changes everything,” I snort. “Tally-ho.”
“Koregon is an island, meaning it’s surrounded by water,” Raz says with condescending slowness. “We’re going to have to cross it eventually. May as well start now, when that ship can get us there faster.”
I stare at the not so distant vessel, trying not to wonder how such a bulky thing could hope to stay afloat amid whatever bends and rapids lie ahead. “How are we supposed to even get on board? We’ll need to have tickets, papers ... something.”
Raz smirks — or grimaces. It’s difficult to say with him. “I’m sure we’ll figure out something once we’re a bit closer.”
He grabs my hand and starts doggedly marching forward, but I wriggle free of his grip, glaring as he looks back at me without slackening pace for a second. “What the hells do you think you’re doing?”
“Keep up, then,” he snaps.
I’m unnerved by the gesture, but as we approach the docks it becomes apparent the attempt at hand-holding wasn’t some sort of weirdness on Raz’s part, just a move to keep us from separated in the dense crowd. After nearly losing sight of him twice amid the crush of travellers, porters, bags, and merchants, I reluctantly latch onto his sleeve just before someone shoves a laden chicken coop between us.
“Not so dubious now,” I hear him mutter through the clamor.
“You could at least ask permission before you touch me, you mangy know-it-all,” I growl under my breath.
“I can hear you,” comes the dry reply. “And fine. Same goes.”
We make our way to the last row of shops before the earth gives way to planked floats and the massive paddle boat’s gangway. Agents of whatever company operates the ship are checking tickets at the foot of the ramp, and porters stand sentinel over the deck, probably guarding against stowaways.
Raz pulls me into an alcove between two shops and starts scanning the crowd. He says something out of the corner of his mouth, but because he’s looking away it doesn’t register for a few moments that he’s talking to me.
He fixes his dark eyes on me and enunciates with patronizing deliberation: “Cry.”
“You cry,” I retort, startled.
Raz folds his arms over his chest, glaring dryly at me. “I hardly think a mangy know-it-all would attract more sympathy than your angelic — if perhaps a bit dirt-streaked — face.”
I continue to glower at Raz, instinctively scrubbing my cheeks with the back of a sleeve, and he rolls his eyes, then pinches my arm — hard.
“We haven’t got all day, Khthonia,” Raz snaps, and tries to pinch me again, but I slap his offending fingers away. His glower only darkens. “We need to distract a passenger or two long enough to steal their tickets, and that means putting on a good show.”
“Fine, but I’ll do it my way.”
I peer up at his face, scrutinizing every inch of beard and weathered skin, and even those terrifyingly dark eyes that are radiating fury back at me. Just a few days ago I thought I was going to find some sort of happiness in my life, something that no one could take away from me. Instead I’ve gotten myself stuck on some wild princess chase with a brusque, arrogant, very likely unhinged Paharan while trying to stay away from Daschen when all I want to do is run back to him and everything that’s familiar.
I chose this, I remind myself as I stare at Raz’s angular features, pouring salt on the gaping wound in my heart. I chose muck and scum and sleeping in the woods and pissing on trees near some lunatic instead of trying everything in my power to stay with my one true love. To convince Daschen I’m the one who’s right for him.
He never would’ve done the same for me.
Suddenly tears are burning their way out of me and I start bawling right here in the middle of this crowded port, sobbing out every emotion I’ve been strangling into submission during the past few days. The past decade, even.
“May I touch you now?” Raz asks wearily from somewhere in the blurred world before me.
“F-Fine,” I howl.
Raz wraps his arm around my waist and pulls me close — and for a moment I don’t even care that it’s him. I don’t mind his unfamiliar aroma of forest and woodsmoke and the swipes of dried mud and pitch sullying his clothes. I just care that for the first time since everything happened at the castle, I can hold onto something solid for a few moments while everything inside me crumbles.
Without any warning, the entire world goes white as Raz presses handkerchief against my entire face, effectively blinding me.
I struggle against him, choking on my tears in my outrage. “H-hey!”
Raz’s arm tightens around me, and the growl rumbles through his chest, barely audible. “You’re doing beautifully, keep crying!”
I nudge the handkerchief aside enough to peek out from beneath it, and find that he’s beckoning someone aside from the crowd: a young man in neat if slightly shabby clothes and a similarly careworn suitcase. A woman stands beside the travel-worn man’s elbow, and from the elaborately painted mask she wears, I think she’s a Mantillean — a sect of Aethorian women sworn never to show their faces except to their husbands. I’ve never actually seen a Mantillean in Vana, but I remember reading about them during the years I was tutored alongside Gennefra and Helia.
“My apologies for troubling you, friend, but I’ve a favor to beg, one Brother of Light to another,” Raz tells the man, pretending to console me as I wrench out a few more sobs. His voice is stricken with concern — kindness, even — and I’m tempted to jab my fist into his side while he’s distracted. Clearly he possesses the capacity to speak decently to others, so why is he usually such a jerk? “My wife here was overcome by your lady’s piousness. She’s been converted.”
The young man’s jaw hangs slack with genuine astonishment. “What, just like that?”
This is never going to work — godsdamn Raz and his terrible spur-of-the-moment ideas!
I try to twist away from the tall man again, but he’s holding me fast, one foot angled around the back of my heel so that I can’t step backward without tripping. Any escape attempt on my part will literally take us both down.
“I’ve been trying to bring her to the Mother’s radiance for years, but the sight of the two of you seems to have struck some deep chord within her,” Raz tells the stranger. “It’s most mysterious — but who am I to question a miracle?”
“A miracle…” the stranger echoes, so awed that it’s practically nauseating.
Raz nudges my arm, and I steal a glance around the handkerchief to the papers sticking out of the man’s jacket. Ferry tickets? Raz’s body is blocking the woman’s view of the papers, and if I’m quick, I can reach out and grab them while my grouchy companion distracts the young man with his black-eyed basilisk stare.
“She’s absolutely refused to go a step further without a proper mask sanctified by the priestesses of the Kelnor Archipelago,” Raz carries on, his tone so smooth that what he’s hint at seems almost rational.
“Oh, you’re in luck — my wife carries a spare,” the young man offers helpfully, and for a moment I think we’re sunk as he half-turns to look at his wife.
Raz’s fingers close on the man’s shoulder in an instant, stopping him. My hand darts to the ferry tickets like a sparrow. I slip them out of the man’s jacket without drawing any attention from either the baffled man or his wife, and stuff them out of sight in Raz’s pocket as he pulls me close again.
My heart’s pounding so hard that I’m surprised no one else’s can hear it, but Raz’s pulse is steady, only as fast as mine is when I’m walking at a brisk pace. How the hells can he be so calm?
“Forgive me, but it’s most important to me that she has her own, brother.” Raz leans toward the other man and speaks conspiratorially, moving his hand back to the kerchief over my face. “Purity is the true face of God and all that, you know.”
The veiled woman gives an approving harrumph, and the young man scrambles to recover. They must be newlyweds, probably an arranged match for the man to know so little about Mantillean traditions. Is that why Raz picked these two out of this whole crowd?
“Er, of course,” the young husband stammers. “How silly of me. Purity … yes, er, quite.”
“I can’t leave her in this condition, but I’ve some money — would you mind procuring one for us?” Raz stuffs something into the man’s hand before he can protest. “There’s a shop just up the way, five streets up, three over—”
“But—” the man protests. “Really, my dear chap—”
The earsplitting blast of the ship’s horn fills the air, and everyone in the crowd hunches against the sonic assault. The frenetic pace of the foot traffic increases tenfold in its wake, and the man glances from Raz to the paddle boat and back, flabbergasted.
I pretend to howl with redoubled sobs. We’re so close — all we need now is for the couple to leave so that we can get aboard in their place.
“That’s just the fifteen minute blast,” Raz tells the young man, that familiar irritation creeping back into his voice as he caresses my back, pretending to soothe me. “You’ll have to hurry. Remember, it’s three streets up, five over—”
“I thought you said five up, three over?” the man squawks in alarm.
“No, aren’t you listening?” Raz snaps. “Three up, five over. We’ll watch your things for you, only please hurry!”
A few moments later his chest shakes with quiet laughter, and he taps me on the shoulder. I claw the handkerchief off my face and step away in time to see the man and his lady scurry off into the crowd without their bags.
“Altruism’s a central pillar of Mantilleanism,” Raz says by way of explanation as he examines our purloined tickets.
“Nice to see some of your ridiculous plans actually work,” I grudgingly allow.
He chuckles. “That from you, Khthonia.”
“Oh, shut up.”
We grab the couple’s bags and struggle through the crowd toward the gangway. I slip one of the woman’s masks out of her suitcase, and after a moment of revulsion at what I’m about to do, wrap the straps around my temples and affix it to my face. I’ll have to wash my skin thoroughly as soon as we’re safe and it’s off me again, even if just with frigid river water; the idea that I’m pressing my face into a complete stranger’s, my lips where hers have been for so long, is like wearing a ghost.
“Where’d you get money from?” I pant as Raz presses a few coins into my hand, My voice is too loud in my own ears from reverberating against the mask, every shallow breath almost deafening.
Raz holds up what has to be the man’s wallet. Of course. If not for that strange whispering box of his I might think him a simple thief, doing all this for unfathomable gain.
“In case we get separated. Keep it hidden.”
“Wouldn’t want it to get stolen,” I mutter as I surreptitiously tuck the coins into my smallclothes.
We board the paddle boat without further incident, and the gangway goes up just a few minutes later. There’s no sign of the Mantillean woman and her gullible husband as the vessel drifts away from shore — and by the time they’ve probably realized we’re nowhere to be found, the watercraft is away down the riverbend and out of sight.
“Can’t we just be siblings?” I complain.
The cabin would be plenty of space — more, even — if I were traveling with anyone else, but the idea of even pretending to be Raz’s wife for the admittedly brief duration of this journey is making the lacquered wooden walls contract around me.
My stomach flips strangely as we stare each other down across the lone bed. It’s large enough that there should still be space enough for room between our bodies, but the idea of sleeping in such close proximity to the Paharan man makes me uneasy. We had more privacy from each other in caves than this!
He tosses his pack and the pilfered suitcase onto the floor by the portal window, shaking the sheaf of folded papers at me. “This couple is married, and we’re assuming their identities. There’s no way around it.”
I grunt wordlessly.
“Think of it this way: at least you don’t have to wear the mask anymore, although it’d certainly be safer if you did,” Raz snaps. “Consider yourself un-converted from Mantilleanism.” He glances at me and wrinkles his nose in distaste. “Besides, you’re nothing like my sister.”
“Sure, like you actually have a sister,” I snort. “You’d probably be nicer if you did.”
I open the woman’s suitcase to find some clothes and a few personal items — little statues and trinkets whose significance I can’t even begin to understand. Now she’s parted from these things because of me, probably forever.
My guts twist guiltily. They were just trying to be nice, and we stole from them.
“What’ll happen to them?”
I don’t even realize I’ve spoken the words aloud until Raz gruffly responds, “There’s a Mantillean temple nearby, her people will look after them. And we’ll be long since disappeared in Koregon by tomorrow. Anything we don’t need we can leave behind in this room, and the shipping company should get it back to them.” His tone softens: “I chose them as particularly as I could, given the hurry we’re in.”
Raz tugs off his jacket, shoes, and weapons, and settles himself on the bed. It’s almost comical how many blades he has stashed away on his person — and from the grim look he shoots me as he lies back, I know he’s still got a few more close to hand as he falls asleep.
I sit in the chair by the window, watching the canyon walls scroll past as the ship rocks gently to and fro, trying not to think about the wooden box with the voices, the crystal flower, and the brass glass. It’s still so early in the day that smoke is rising off the water, flashing in the golden light of morning — and even given the too-bright rays my eyelids become leaden and I drift into unconsciousness.
Raz is gone by the time I wake, and there’s a crick in my neck from the awkward position I was sitting in when I fell asleep. Moonlight shines off the ice-encrusted hills that escort the river, illuminating them like diamond meadows, but the sky ahead of us is still streaked with roseate swipes of dusk.
The boat’s slow shifting to and fro is more manageable than before I slept — and as my stomach grumbles, I realize I haven’t eaten a decent meal for at least a day. I’ll have to risk eating, unless I want to make myself feel even worse.
There’s bound to be food somewhere on this boat, so I clean up in the small washroom and change into fresh clothes, thanking the gods the Mantillean woman thought to pack a pair of comfortable trousers in her suitcase.
I hide the shamshir and crystalline flower in a closet before leaving, and lock the door behind me on my way out. Raz has the key, so I’ll need him to get back in, but since he’ll have to come back here eventually I’m not terribly worried. I have more to be scared of right now than a door key, and walking around with those items on my person will do nothing but attract trouble.
The paddle boat is more spacious than I’m expecting, and I’d wager there are a couple hundred guests aboard, not to mention any number of invisible servants. It’s jarring being on this side of things; I prowl the boat’s sumptuous corridors in a disbelieving haze. Joining the ranks of the ship’s workers would’ve been a more discreet route to take if we’d had time, but it was probably best to risk a hastier escape from the port than get caught up by Daschen and Mr. Soames.
Daschen. Even thinking his name hurts. I hope he’s well. I hope he’s safe. Maybe it’s my lack of sleep but he feels like he’s world away from here.
I wander through spacious sitting rooms, ornately embellished smoking rooms, a glittering casino, and a musical salon. Eventually I find my way to the top deck, where a glass-enclosed dining room looks out over the water ahead of us and to both sides.
“This isn’t a boat, it’s a floating palace!” I mutter, but the words are borne away on the stiff breeze.
“Name, ma’am?” a footman by the door prompts.
For a moment I can’t remember. Then it comes to me: “Gorian. Lillian.”
Evidently there’s assigned seating, but the footman directs me to a table that’s mercifully empty; it seems I’ve come ahead of the dinner rush. Food’s already being laid out at the back of the hall, and I pick at a bowl of potato soup, trying to ignore the ship’s slow lurching. There must be some way of stopping the vessel in the event of serious trouble, but it’s unnerving to be floating along with the current, knowing we’re being borne inexorably onward.
The chairs beside mine move, and an elderly pair plop down, flanking me. They’re a few years older than Marthe, but they look very lively, and though I’ve never seen them before they seem strangely delighted to see me.
“You must be Mrs. Gorian — we missed you at lunch,” the woman says with a pleasant smile. Her cheeks are reddened with the wind, but I also catch a whiff of wine on her breath. “We’re the Grivens.”
“We met your husband earlier,” Mr. Griven adds. “Such a pleasant fellow!”
I bite my tongue to stifle derisive laughter. Pleasant is hardly the first word I’d use to describe Raz, his uncanny knack for saving my sorry ass notwithstanding.
Mrs. Griven frowns a little at my expression. “Are you feeling all right, my dear? You look a bit drawn.”
“Thank you, it’s nothing,” I reassure her. “I’m just not used to being aboard a ship.”
“But we’re hardly moving at all,” Mr. Griven says with a genuinely touching look of concern. The elderly couple exchanges a very blatant conspiratorial glance, and my cheeks burn as I realize what they’re thinking.
“Really, I’ve just never been out on open water,” I say hastily. Do they think I don’t chew sylphius? There was certainly no shortage of it at Triptyllach Castle, which was why I never got in that sort of trouble with Daschen. What an awful life that would’ve been, raising his illegitimate child when the cure against it was as plentiful as dandelions.
Evidently all this subterfuge is making me look untrustworthy, because no amount of protestation can convince the elderly couple that I’m not merely seasick. The image of what it would take for me to be carrying Raz’s spawn right now almost makes me queasier than the boat’s ceaseless undulation.
Mrs. Griven squeezes my hand, grinning again. “We’re all married here, my dear. Have you told him yet?”
“I was thinking I’d wait a few months,” I lie sweetly, unable to keep my ill humor in check any longer as I stand up, trying to ease myself away. “Maybe years, even, there’s no rush. If you’ll just excuse—”
Mrs. Griven titters, and her husband leans close, cutting me off: “Now’s as good a chance as any!”
I glance over his shoulder and can’t help but be grimly amused to see Raz striding across the dining room toward us.
“Hello, darling,” Raz says, glaring pointedly as he draws even with me. “You had me worried, leaving our cabin like that.”
The smile I force to my lips burns like sweet acid. “As I was worried to find you missing, dear. You might’ve left a note.”
Whether it’s the wine or simply good manners, our elderly companions are oblivious to the hostility flowing between Raz and me. Mr. Grivens even chortles good-naturedly as he regards us. “Your wife is simply lovely, Mr. Gorian — and I believe she has something very special to tell you.”
I stand, offering an icy smile as I join him. “I’m carrying your child.”
Raz looks like he’s about to choke — but after half-suffocating me with that kerchief, this is only fair.
“Yes… It was our wedding night, I’m quite sure of it.” I caress Raz’s cheek for dramatic effect, and though he doesn’t move a mottled blush creeps up his neck. “After you took me to your bed and we, uh…”
I trail off, losing my thread as I see Raz properly for the first time now that our faces are mere inches apart. He’s cleaned up since last I saw him; he’s trimmed his beard, and with his ink-dark hair combed and his skin free of its omnipresent layer of grime, it’s like I’m looking at someone entirely new. His scent is embers and salt and earth, and I can feel his heart quickening against my chest as we stare dumbly at each other.
I’ve blundered across some sort of line here. Things have never been awkward between us — not like that — but it’s like a door’s sprung open in my head where I thought there was only grief and oblivion.
Before I can make sense of the how or why, Raz’s lips find mine. His beard scratches my skin, and a strange heat blazes to life in my core as his mouth lingers for a moment, his mouth scalding mine as his aroma fills my nose.
Self-preservation freezes me in place, and the elderly couple titters as Raz straightens again. Ruddiness creeps higher up his neck as we break apart, and I stare up at him, stunned speechless.
“Poor thing, she’s embarrassed,” Mrs. Griven giggles, glancing up at Raz.
“My bride is remarkably shy when she’s not busy making a scene,” he mutters as he catches my hand in his calloused one. “Perhaps I should take her for some air.”
“Yes, please excuse me, I suddenly feel rather ill,” I hiss, grimacing quickly in farewell to the Grivens. They move to sit next to each other as we depart, chattering in low, amused tones.
“What was that?” I growl at Raz as we thread our way toward the back of the ship. I want to shake off his touch, but the elderly couple is still looking after us with solicitous glee.
“Why did you kiss me?” he demands in the same tone.
“I did no such thing!”
“You practically attacked me!” Raz’s glower could melt stone. “If this is about who we’re pretending to be, don’t think I enjoyed it any more than you did.” He sighs shakily, twitching his head like he’s got water in his ear. “Just … forget it.”
“G-good!” I stammer, thoroughly baffled. I thought he leaned toward me — is he right, did I kiss him, or was it the other way around?
Prior to a minute ago, Daschen was the only man I’d ever touched in that way, and Raz is about the furthest thing from a nobleman imaginable. I’m so confused about what happened that I don’t even dare think about it — but as we pass through a servants-only entrance and start down some winding stairs on the outside of the paddle boat, I’m sorely tempted to give Raz some “help” downward as he finally releases my hand.
“Are we even allowed to be back here?” I grumble under my breath, embarrassed to not have even noticed that our fingers were still linked until he let me go. The view ahead of us is of the paddle boat’s churning wake and the darkness. “I can’t imagine we’re allowed to go strolling through the servants’ territory without asking someone for permission.”
“I’m giving us permission.”
“You do that pretty often,” I mutter, knowing full well he can hear me.
We emerge into a square of open space at the rear of the ship — the end of the cargo hold, by the looks of it. Straight ahead I can see into the ship’s underbelly, to the furnaces’ fiery glow and the shimmering silhouettes of the men shoveling coal. This aft space is hemmed in with huge wooden shipping crates, and a motley assortment of rope lines dangle from a sort of moving grid overhead. It’s all so newfangled I can barely make sense of it.
“Why did you bring me here?” I demand. This place is too far out of the way for comfort — and the proximity to the river, just off the ship’s stern, makes my chest tighten with worry.
Raz picks up a pair of thick, arm-length dowels resting to one side of the open space, and tosses me one. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say the crew use them to prod the wooden crates around as they hang from the grid. “Practice.”
I eye him dubiously. “I know how to handle myself in a fight.”
“You’re out of shape,” Raz counters, “and it’s going to catch up to you at some point. It nearly did back in Riverfall — not to mention that cabin near the trail.”
I swing the stick, warming myself up a little. Pragmatism and anger are warring within me, but I want to be ready just in case I do get a decent shot at kicking Raz’s ass. “I got us through that door in the library.”
“And if I hadn’t gotten you out of there with my parachute — which got wrecked, by the way — you would’ve been rotting away in a prison cell right now. Probably worse.”
Raz is suddenly gliding toward me with unnatural speed, and I trip over my feet as he lashes out at me with his dowel. He lands across the open square, and unwinds the rope from his arm as I struggle to my feet again.
Oh — he was swinging.
He faces me again, exasperated by my clumsiness. I think I like him better when he’s angry; his disappointed expression is too much like the one Father used to give me when I was screwing off instead of practicing.
“We have to be ready for anything, Khthonia,” he snaps. “If you don’t keep sharpening your skills, you won’t be able to keep up in a fight.”
I shake my head and move back toward the stairs leading up. “This is ridiculous.”
“This is what we have to work with. So we train.” There’s a clattering followed by silence, and then Raz glides around my body to land between me and the steps. His eyes burn with an eerie intensity, cutting through the darkness. “Do it properly one time, and I’ll leave you alone.”
“Do what one time?”
He proffers the rope. “Swing around the square once and touch each of those crates without stopping. Prove to me that you’ve the strength, the dexterity, and the stamina to hold your own when challenged, and I won’t doubt you again.”
The chance to get him off my back for a while is an irresistible lure, so I move to drop the dowel and take hold of the rope.
“You’re going to fight without your sword?” Raz asks dryly.
I clench my fingers tighter on the smooth stick and yank the rope away from him. He only stands there watching me, features contorted in a judgmental expression that says I can’t possibly measure up.
I need to shut this annoying bastard up once and for all.
I wind the line around my arm as Raz did and launch off toward the first shipping container. Everything’s fine at first, but then my body starts to rotate, and I crash sideways into the solid wood panel hard enough to knock myself loose from the rope, collapsing to the deck in a heap.
“See?” Raz barks. “You lack focus!”
“I am focusing!” I growl back, embarrassed and furious. He’d made it look so easy. I pick myself up, grab the dowel and the line, and push off toward another flat surface.
This time I’m successful, and catch myself on the side of the cargo container with my feet. I shove off in another direction, but it’s a longer distance to this second target, and my boots skid on the deck, bringing me to an ungainly halt.
Raz shakes his head, his depthless eyes flashing with anger as the rope shudders free of my fingers. “You’re distracted by the fear of pain, holding yourself back instead of reacting to your circumstances. To survive a fight to the death you’ve got to rid your mind of that fear. You have to be ready for anything.” He catches the loose rope, and sends it swinging back toward me. “Try it again.”
“Fine, but don’t say you didn’t ask for it!” I snarl back over the churning of the water and the groaning of the paddlewheels. Raz’s face makes a pretty infuriating target — too infuriating. Or maybe just infuriating enough, if I could channel that aggravation just right.
It’s easier to figure out how to kick against the boxes and hitch myself up and down on the line — both to avoid the deck and keep my momentum going — once I start imagining that each next target is Raz. Again and again I challenge his ghostly visage while the real version of him shouts at me from somewhere in my periphery, correcting me as I lose track of how long my hands and feet have been clamped around this harsh rope.
Just when I think I’ve got it down, though, Raz throws in another twist.
“What do you think Prince Daschen’s doing right now?” he muses as I sweep past.
The mention of Daschen’s name is enough to make my exhausted fingers shudder, and I tumble to the deck again, the unyielding planks knocking the breath from my lungs.
“You’re still distracted,” Raz growls. “Dammit, Khthonia, focus!”
I lurch to my feet. “Then leave Daschen out of this!”
Raz is up in my face in an instant, eyes flashing with anger. “What exactly about this do you fail to understand? The people who kidnapped Princess Embla are bound to be lethal. They will use every possible advantage at their disposal — so if they start yelling Daschen’s name at you during the heat of battle, what are you going to do? Stick your fingers in your ears and wait ’til they’re done?”
“I’ll manage,” I bark, narrowing my eyes into a glare that’s every bit as fierce as his.
“No, scullery maid — you’ll get yourself killed, and me along with you.” Raz snatches the dowel out of my hand, and my knuckles sting from where it bangs against me. His voice drops to a dangerous rumble. “I’m counting on you to have my quarter — so if you fall, I fall. And until you learn to focus, there’s no point to any of this.” His brow furrows again, and his words drip with contempt. “So stop being quite so … moony.”
Raz turns and walks back toward the stairs, done with me.
I’m not done with him, though. There’s only one thought in my mind now, and I charge at Raz’s unprotected back.
I slam into his spine and snatch the wooden dowel back out his hand, sending him tumbling to the ground as I re-arm myself. Not as hard as I’ve liked, though; Raz rolls to his feet and comes up facing me, diamond-pure fury glittering in his eyes as I grab one of the dangling ropes and launch away from him, putting a bit of distance between us.
He can bluster all he likes, but I’m not afraid of him. In fact, I’m counting on how he comes charging after me, swinging up on a line of his own.
As he gains on me I abruptly drop to the ground and grab the trailing end of his rope, stopping it dead as he draws even with me. The line twangs like a bowstring, and Raz flies off to slam into the side of a container with a satisfying thump.
“Don’t pretend like you know me,” I seethe at him as he flips to his feet. My hands are chafed raw from the rope, so seeing the shallow scrape on his cheek from where he collided face-first with the wood brings a savage grin to my lips. “I might not be here without you, but you wouldn’t be here without me, either.”
Raz attacks, and I slide back, absorbing the blows his dowel rains onto mine. He’s an unflinching opponent, but that trickle of blood on his skin is enough to remind me that he’s vulnerable. I keep my attention focused on that swipe of red, holding my own.
“Better,” Raz grudgingly allows, shivering as I land a glancing blow on his left shoulder.
“I don’t know how many times I have to say this to get the notion through your thick skull, but I’m here and I’m trying,” I growl between swipes. “And for whatever reason, you haven’t ditched me yet, so you can’t think I’m that terrible!”
I suddenly drop my dowel and stare defiantly at Raz as his makeshift weapon swings toward me.
He pulls the blow at the last moment, a mere finger’s-width from my skin. I smirk inwardly with relief — and at the confused look in Raz’s eyes, almost as though he doesn’t know why he stopped himself.
“So back off,” I finish coldly.
Raz relaxes out of his stance, and his expression becomes inscrutable again. “What was going through your mind just now?”
I may as well be honest with him: “I wanted to kick your ass.”
Raz bares his teeth in a brutal grin. “Maybe someday.” He pauses, the smile fading like sunset. “Remember that feeling.”
Then he’s gone, headed away back up the stairs.
Clapping echoes behind me, and I turn to see a few of the nearest coal shovelers applauding our bout. I grin sheepishly and wave to them before hurrying after Raz’s retreating silhouette. I’m proud of myself, but I don’t want to give him any chance to lock me out of the room if I hurt his feelings along with his face.
I awaken to Raz shouting in his sleep again. Moonlight flares off a pale bluff on one side of the river, lighting our room, and I can see he’s writhing, clutching his left shoulder as though he’s in agony.
“Raz!” I shake him with all my might, but he doesn’t wake. My pulse races as he stays locked in this … whatever that’s happening. “Raz, wake the hells up!”
His agonized cries threaten to curdle my blood. I’ve never heard a human being in this kind of pain.
I yank Raz’s shirt open to see what’s wrong, and the air goes out of my lungs. The entire front and back of his shoulder and part of his upper arm are covered in a network of horrific burns and lacerations, ancient white-and-pink scars webbing his skin.
It’s worse by far than the scars on the backs of my legs. Worse than anything I’ve ever seen.
I grab his hand without even thinking, just beside his, as if that can somehow change what’s happening — but my sigh of concern becomes a strangled gasp as Raz’s fingers clamp around my wrist, squeezing so tight that I can feel my pulse fluttering in my fingertips.
“Raz, come back!”
He snaps fully awake, and we stare at each other, frozen in shock as knocking sounds at the door.
“I say, is everything all right in there?” a man calls authoritatively from the hallway. We’ll be lucky if Raz’s screams haven’t woken the entire floor.
“Let go of me,” I say quietly.
His fingers spring loose, and he looks stunned; I don’t think he even realized he was holding onto me. His dark eyes widen with panic as I hurry to the door, but it’s just the steward for our section standing outside — and I can tell from the man’s expression and the few other sleepy, curious faces peering around door jambs that people think something terrible was just happening in our room.
“I’m sorry, it’s perfectly fine,” I tell the steward, praying he won’t notice the quaver in my voice. “My, uh, husband, he was just having a nightmare. Thank you very much for your concern — we’re sorry to have disturbed everyone.”
Reassured, the steward nods and hesitantly retreats, as do the busybodies in the neighboring compartments.
I shut the door and turn to stare at Raz, my heartbeat still slamming painfully as the murmur of gossip fades to silence outside our room. “What in the hells just happened?”
His eyes are sharp, defensive. “What business is it of yours?”
“Knowing you’re not going to break my neck in my sleep is curiously important to me.”
He laughs, but shakily, still unsettled from the nightmare. “I … I fought in a war. Years ago. And I was injured.”
The fact that he’s telling the truth is clear enough from the self-conscious stumbling of his fingers as he straightens his shirt — and that terrible scar is irrefutable. War is such a cataclysmic thing … but if there’d been one, how could we not have heard about it in Vana?
The memory of the box with the voices drifts back to my mind, and I suddenly know the answer: “You were serious when you said you’d been outside of the four kingdoms.”
He nods, and even though I know I’m staring at his shoulder, covered by his shirt again, I can’t tear my eyes away. “I know you’ll think me crazy, Khthonia, but I’m not. I’ve been to what you would call the barbarian lands. I’ve fought there.”
“What was…” My heart’s galloping like a spooked mare, and I have to start again. “What was it like?”
Raz watches me distrustfully. “The outside world?”
I shake my head; those questions can wait. Khet and Samunder have had their skirmishes during the past few decades, it’s true, but what he’s talking about is different. “War.”
Raz’s features sag into a profound weariness that threatens to drag even me down into its depths. “There’s no glory,” he says gruffly. “Only death.”
He settles back on the bed and rolls away from me, the conversation at an end.
It doesn’t make sense to try to sleep anywhere in the cabin but the bed — that pain in my neck from falling asleep in the chair today is aggravatingly persistent — so I grab the shamshir and hold it in front of me, keeping it between my body and his as I slowly creep back into the bed beside him.
I knew Raz had more secrets, but that was stars away from anything I could’ve expected. Poor bastard… Is he in constant pain from that injury?
I can’t pity him, though. I feel like I should, instinctively, but I think he’d hate my pity more than anything, the same way I think — no, I know — I’d loathe his if our positions were reversed.
The wrapped leather of the shamshir’s hilt is comfortingly solid against my hand as I watch Raz sleeping for a while longer, until I’m reasonably sure he’s not going to awaken screaming again — or go for my throat. There’s no telling what he might do while in the throes of one of those nightmares, and my throbbing wrists are a potent reminder of his strength.
But it’s not Raz’s fingers that I’m thinking about as I fall asleep, or his whispering box, or even the idea of a war somewhere in the barbarian lands beyond the four kingdoms … it’s the feeling of Raz’s lips pressed to mine, and that strange sensation that sparked through my nerves when we touched.
If I love Daschen as much as I do, why didn’t that kiss, or disguise, or whatever it was, feel more wrong?