The words you are searching are inside this book. To get more targeted content, please make full-text search by clicking here.
Discover the best professional documents and content resources in AnyFlip Document Base.
Search
Published by PLHS Library, 2022-07-07 02:02:24

Fields of Fire

Hannah West

Copyright © 2018 by Hannah West
All Rights Reserved

HOLIDAY HOUSE is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
www.holidayhouse.com

Ebook ISBN 9780823440160

v5.3.2
a

CONTENTS

Cover
Title Page
Copyright

Fields of Fire

stared out the cracked barn door at two shadows darting across
the windswept meadow. My fingers strayed to the hilt of my
dirk, but I checked myself, muzzling an instinctive bite of fear.

The nearest figure paused against the violet night sky to chirp
three nightingale notes. Relieved to recognize the call as one of our
safe signals, I retrieved a wooden whistle from my pocket and
answered with two clipped chirps. My spies resumed their
approach.

Gannon pulled the creaky door ajar. His blue eyes shone bright
in the lantern light as he crossed the threshold of the hay barn and
loomed over me. I was hardly alarmed; everyone loomed over me,
save children.

“Drell,” he said by way of greeting.

“Were you able to search the alchemist’s room?” I asked. Reed
entered behind him and gently closed the door.

“Aye, while Skye distracted him, as we planned.” Gannon
combed his fingers through brown curls damp with mist. Reed
eased himself down on a milking stool and rubbed his thumb over
his coarse beard, as was his wont when nervous. Their eyes met.

“Well, out with it,” I said, unable to endure the suspense. “What
did you find?”

Gannon inhaled deeply, shoring up the will to deliver dour
news. The fear I’d fended off moments ago returned with a
vengeance, tightening around my ribs as I awaited his report.

Just then, a second, unanticipated series of chirps pierced the
night, but through the rustling trees I couldn’t make out whether it
was one of our signals. One of our horses whinnied restively from
the distant enclosure near the woods. We quieted our breaths until
the only sound was the soft singing of steel as we drew our blades.

The door creaked open. My muscles tensed to meet an intruder.
Perhaps the farmers had heard us from their house, perched just
on the other side of a hill. But a lanky cloaked figure paused at the
threshold with a long blond wig clenched in one fist.

“Skye.” I relaxed my shoulders and sank my dirk into its sheath.
“We weren’t expecting you.”

Skye stepped inside and slid back her hood, revealing the ash-
blond waves cropped short around her ears, greasy with oils that
kept them hidden beneath the golden wig. “Sorry, Drell. Didn’t
mean to startle you.”

“Why aren’t you at the bathhouse inn?” I asked. “I thought you’d
secured a job as an attendant. Free lodging there has got to be
better than this barn.”

“I did,” she said, and whipped off her wet cloak. She crossed the
small open space to perch upon one of the hundreds of tidy hay
bales, smoothing the wig in her lap. “But I was eager to hear what
Gannon learned so that I could plan accordingly. The alchemist is
no easy target. That’s about the sum of what I’ve gleaned so far.”

“Will anyone note your absence?” I asked, voice flat with
irritation. Spontaneity was a requisite skill in our line of work, but
I preferred my spies to wield it only after our meticulous plans had
gone awry.

“I was careful. I’ll be back for my shift at the baths tomorrow.”
Skye scratched her scalp and scrunched her nose. “Ugh, that
horrid wig will be my demise. Go on, Gannon. I’ve had a long
night. Tell us what you found.”

Gannon produced a bundle of parchment from his breast pocket
and unfolded it. “The alchemist is devising a weapon,” he
explained. “An unrivaled one that could kill hundreds with a single
blow. Trumble commissioned it.”

I struggled to swallow before I asked, “Kill hundreds at once?
How?”

He dipped back into his pocket to fetch a vial with a cork
stopper. It held a pinch of black granules, slightly coarser than
sand. They twinkled in the dim light. “This is some sort of potent
matter scraped from cavern walls,” he explained. “Caverns in
Galgeth.”

“Galgeth?” I repeated, a sense of dread coiling around my heart
as I recalled legends of that unwholesome place, the netherworld
to the west of Nissera that could only be reached by immortal
elicromancers. “So Trumble is a double agent. As a mortal he

couldn’t have passed into Galgeth to gather them on his own. He’s
working for Tamarice.”

Simply uttering the dark elicromancer’s name dispatched waves
of visceral rage through my veins. I’d been naught but a child
when Tamarice had dwelt at my home city of Darmeska, but I
often revised my memories of those days, indulging a fantasy that
a single wet thrust of my blade had pierced her heart and ended
her before she could threaten Nissera with war—a war the
fractured realm might not win.

But I never would have had a chance of defeating her, even back
when she strode through the halls of my fortress city, her chin
jutting high and her catlike eyes sparkling with rancor and secrets.
Her elicrin power was too vast.

All I could do was search for signs of her influence, stalk any
mortals she might have lured into her service, and hope that
Bristal and the army she was helping to build were strong enough
to stop her before the realm of Nissera fell to ruin.

“Under certain conditions, the granules will combust with great
force,” Gannon went on, handing me the bundle of parchment. I
scanned the familiar scrawl. He had copied the alchemist’s notes
in his own hand; he knew better than to swipe the originals. “It’s a
phenomenon that occurs naturally in the caverns of Galgeth, when
the air is right.”

“If you can call anything about the netherworld natural,” I
retorted.

“You’ll see from my notes that the alchemist plans to find a way
for the substance to combust outside the Galgethian Caverns,”
Gannon said. “He plans to mix and manipulate the granules,
turning them into a weapon that would burst violently and cause
mass casualties.”

“Since he’s toying with materials this volatile, he must have a
workshop somewhere,” Reed added. He produced his latest
whittling project, a whistle that would mimic the call of a tawny
owl. He liked to busy his hands while he spoke. “He has a
permanent room at the bathhouse inn, but he couldn’t experiment
there unnoticed.”

A lock of red hair fell across my face and I shoved it back into its
plait with undue force. “Why would Tamarice bother with this?” I
asked, riffling through the pages. “Her power is a weapon, a
deadly one. What need does she have for combustible rocks?”

“She’s doing what any good commander would do,” Reed
replied in a gruff voice. He shaved away a curl of wood with his
knife and let it fall to the dirt floor. “Arm her legion to the teeth
and make no assumptions of victory.”

The sweat suddenly dampening my palm smeared the still-fresh
ink of Gannon’s notes. This was far worse than I had expected. I
was well aware that spying on bad people led to knowledge of bad
deeds—but the man we’d been eyeing was clearly rotten to the
core.

Years ago, Trumble, our target, had kidnapped Bristal, forcing
her into the deadly Water in the western forest in hopes that she
would not perish, but would instead be one of the very few who
emerged possessing a magical elicrin stone. When she survived,
Trumble had tried to thieve the powerful stone. But Bristal
escaped with it, taking shelter in my fortress city, where we
became fast friends and she learned to wield her shapeshifting gift
under the guidance of the only other elicromancers still in
existence, one of them Tamarice. When Tamarice had turned to
dark elicromancy, Bristal was forced to conspire against her for
the good of Nissera. And now we hung so much of our hope on
her.

In a strange way, we had Trumble to thank for that—his actions
had helped make Bristal a powerful elicromancer.

But that was not the last of his villainous acts, as it turned out.
He had somehow wormed his way to serving the King of Calgoran
in Arna, acting as his spy and informant, surely with some sinister
purpose in mind. I’d suspected he might be a double agent,
working for Tamarice while whispering in the mortal king’s ear,
weakening this realm so that she might more easily claim it as her
own when she returned from her self-imposed exile in the
netherworld of Galgeth.

It was thanks to my spies’ close scrutiny of Trumble that we had
intercepted the messenger he’d sent north from Arna to Cadoma.

The messenger bore a letter Trumble had cryptically addressed to
“The Alchemist.” The letter inquired about the progress of an
“urgent project.” Though the precise nature of this undertaking
was a mystery to me, I suspected Trumble had commissioned this
alchemist to develop some sort of untraceable poison, perhaps to
assassinate the king—or perhaps to off someone who had become
suspicious of how easily and swiftly Trumble had earned the king’s
trust.

But now I knew that the alchemist’s undertaking was far more
nefarious than formulating a poison. Imaginings of gruesome
battles ripped through my mind, thoughts of these powerful
granules wiping out ranks of warriors, violently tearing limb from
limb and torching human flesh.

“Will the alchemist notice you took the granules?” I asked
Gannon, gesturing at the vial.

“No. I only nabbed a pinch.”

“We could get rid of him tonight,” Reed suggested, at last
looking up from his whittling. “End it all quickly.”

“No.” I folded the documents and tucked them away. “We need
him to lead us to his workshop. We must sabotage his progress,
burn his findings to oblivion, and ensure Trumble doesn’t know
enough to simply pass the work to another alchemist who could
finish the job.”

“What if we reveal his double agency to Bristal?” Gannon asked.
“She could disguise herself as anyone: the king, the queen, a
courtier. She’ll off Trumble and be done with it. We’ll kill the
alchemist.”

“That’s shortsighted,” Skye said. “If we kill Trumble, we’ll lose
our only connection to Tamarice. Watching him led us to this.
We’ll have no foreknowledge of Tamarice’s plans without him.”

“What if Bristal posed as Trumble and the alchemist
unknowingly delivered the weapon to her?” Reed asked, shifting
his stocky weight on the stool. “She can look like anyone she
wants, can’t she?”

For a wee moment, I entertained the idea. Bristal would want to
intervene. She knew the darkness inside Trumble. She knew what
he was capable of. But right now, she was disguised as a male

soldier with the Realm Alliance, attempting to bolster the only
army that was ready and willing to fight the supernatural war
Tamarice would unleash on us. Sending her a sensitive missive
could compromise her, and take time we might not have.

“Bristal is working to grow the Realm Alliance, and that’s
exactly what she should be doing,” I replied. “We’re going to need
an army regardless of the outcome of this mission.”

“But it would be quite easy for her—” Gannon started.

“I don’t ask for help with tasks we can carry out ourselves,” I
barked, losing patience. “We can handle Trumble and his
alchemist. What else did we learn about him? Anything new?
Skye?”

“His name is Cecil Callebrand. None of the bath attendants
seem to know much else, except that he leaves at dawn and
returns after dark. He’s quite withdrawn.”

“Get as close to him as you dare tomorrow to ascertain the
workshop location,” I said. “Gannon and I will go to the baths as
patrons around nightfall, so we can be near if you need us as soon
as he’s set to arrive. Reed, pose as a street beggar. Follow the
alchemist next time he leaves, but not aggressively. None of us can
make him suspicious.”

The stool creaked as Reed leaned forward, hanging his arms
over his spread thighs. “We may have a wee problem with that
plan,” he said, looking to Skye, who picked at bits of straw to avoid
my gaze.

I cocked my head and waited for an explanation. Both Skye and
Reed looked at Gannon. “What’s happened?” I asked.

“I made a mistake,” Gannon answered hoarsely.

“He was trying to protect me,” Skye said, and forced herself to
meet my eyes before going on. “When I started the job this
morning, the innkeeper told me I could choose one of two paths: I
could simply work my shifts, eat in the kitchen, and retire to my
room. Or I could make myself more…available to the wealthy
patrons. Entertain them. Drink with them in the inn tavern. Give
them private massages in the baths. Bed them, if they wish. Those
who choose to ‘entertain’ receive more pay, a bigger room, better

meals, more freedom. The rest are encouraged to dress modestly
and act polite yet distant to stave off unwanted attention.”

I nodded, urging her toward the point. Of course the Old King’s
Baths offered their highborn clientele a bit more than a bath, a
massage, and lavish accommodations.

“At first, I thought going unnoticed might put me at an
advantage with the alchemist. But then I realized how private he
was. So I went to the tavern to keep him busy while Gannon
searched his room. I tried to make good use of the time, but even
when ale-sodden the alchemist isn’t a chatty fellow—just rough
and rude. He was standing by the hearth and I tried to engage
him. Then I played coy about going to bed with him and he didn’t
like that. He took hold of me very suddenly, and lifted my skirts to
burn my thigh with the hearth poker, as if he could prod me
upstairs to his chamber like a cow. I yelped a bit loud and most of
the patrons laughed. Gannon heard the commotion and
intervened.” She crossed her arms and shot him a chagrined look.

“Intervened?” I repeated, turning his way. Inwardly, I was
seething over what Skye had endured, but outwardly I could only
disapprove of Gannon taking such an unnecessary risk. Skye
didn’t need his help.

“I took the poker and burned the bastard’s shoulder,” he said.
“And got dragged out because evidently a fight disturbs the other
patrons more than an attack on an innocent woman. I had to wait
until he slept to search his room.”

“Are you daft?” I demanded. “You made a spectacle and then
searched his room while he was in it?” He flinched as I stepped
toward him. “You could have wrecked this entire mission over a
flesh wound.”

“I’m sorry,” Gannon said, though thanks to the hard set of his
jaw, I didn’t quite believe him.

“You’re sorry?” I repeated. “Skye can handle herself. You’re not
responsible for any of us unless we are in grave danger, and you
know that.” I cursed and paced down the aisle of sweet-smelling
haystacks. Struggling not to raise my voice, I strode back and
growled, “You should be pleading with me not to send you back to
Darmeska to work for your father in a bloody apron.”

Despite the conviction in my voice, my threat rang hollow.
Gannon was skilled, sly, indispensable. I couldn’t afford to punish
him. But now I couldn’t use him either. “We have a truly
destructive weapon on our hands, and you’ve hindered your ability
to continue this mission.”

“There wasn’t a sober bloke in that whole tavern!” he argued. “It
took four of them to drag me out, and I barely resisted.”

“He has a common face,” Skye added, studying Gannon.
“Everyone’s got a cousin, friend, or blacksmith who looks just like
him. A wig, a beard, some fine clothes should do.”

Gannon pursed his lips but said nothing more.

Mine carved a scowl. “It’s too risky.”

“Reed is the muscle. He doesn’t go deep undercover like I do,”
Gannon said, his tone still edged with uncharacteristic
belligerence.

I sucked my teeth. “This isn’t like you, Gannon. All of your
comrades have been through worse, yet you’ve never interfered.
You’ve never lost your composure.”

He fell silent for a moment. His gaze was intense, but it didn’t
land on any of us. It settled in the distance, as if there were
anything to regard other than shadows and bundled hay.

“He is a dangerous man,” he at last said in a gravelly voice. His
attention quivered toward Skye before landing back on me. “I
knew that, even before he hurt Skye.”

I could almost taste the tension in the air, denser than the
musty smack of hay and dust.

“Fine,” I uttered, snatching the granules from Gannon and
holding them to the faint lantern light, though at a safe distance
from the flame. “But no more mistakes tomorrow. Tamarice is
powerful enough on her own. A weapon like this could easily turn
the tides of war in her favor.”



When the evening sun gilded the green meadows, Gannon and I
rode from the farm to the nearby city of Cadoma. Terrace-top
residences followed contours of hills scarred with limestone.

Centuries ago, a Calgoranian king had built an elaborate
bathhouse beside the natural hot-spring pools, which he’d enjoyed
visiting on holidays—until his brother paid a bath attendant to slit
his throat.

Today’s Ermetarius brothers weren’t the first siblings of their
bloodline who didn’t get along.

We dismounted as we approached the crowded market, where
the stink of manure and butchered meat lambasted my senses,
mingling with aromas from floral soap shops. Gannon was barely
recognizable in his dandy blond wig and blue slit-sleeve jerkin.
“The stews are this way,” he said, dodging squawking saleswomen
competing to sell us cloying lavender and rose-petal sachets before
day’s end.

“The stews?” I repeated.

“The baths.”

“Disgusting.”

Gannon laughed and paid a young boy a few thesars to lead our
palfreys, Dusty and Victor, on to our destination: twin stone
buildings perched atop rock formations towering over the shops of
the city street below. I scooped up my butter-yellow skirts and
grimaced at a stagnant puddle in my path, easily falling into the
role of a wealthy sir’s mistress. The Old King’s Baths catered to
highborn company and prided themselves on discretion. A desire
for secrecy would be our best excuse for arriving without our very
own servants.

A set of gates and a pair of guards waited at the foot of a flight of
stairs, which had been hewn from the rough rock. Sharply dressed
grooms led our horses to the stables down the street. As I watched
them retreat, I noticed Reed hunkered on the cobblestones outside
a bronzesmith’s shop in his convincing beggar disguise.

The guards waved us onward and we scaled the stairs,
eventually entering a crowded tavern with high ceilings and a
fountain whose tile base gleamed with copper thesars and silver
aurions. The smells of roast beef, malty ale, and tart of onion
made me salivate, but I lost my appetite remembering what had
occurred here last night: the humiliation Skye had endured, the
risk Gannon had taken to end it. I cast a cautious glance at the

people around me—the innkeeper, the attendants—examining
their expressions to see if they recognized Gannon from last
night’s debacle. But his disguise seemed sufficient.

Gannon arranged our accommodations, and we made our way
upstairs to our private room. Once inside, I crossed to double
doors that opened to a balcony overlooking a garden decorated
with sculpted marble statuettes and fountains. Beyond that, hot-
spring pools studded the rock formations like uncut gems set in
silver. Patrons lounged about in linen undergarments or in the
nude. Across the outdoor pools, opposite the inn, an atrium with
elaborate statues led to the shadowy indoor bathhouse.

A gentle knock sounded. My heart thumped wildly before
composing itself. Gannon cut me a glance and reached to open the
door.

Skye waited in the corridor, wearing her flowing wig and a
cream-colored gown with a sheer embroidered waist and slits
from hem to hips, the same garment I’d noticed on other female
attendants. She looked nothing like the folksy girl with ruffled hair
and weary eyes who had left the hay barn before dawn this
morning.

“Evening, sir and madam. I’ve brought your robes and bath
tokens,” she sang, waiting for a guest to pass by before she slipped
inside and shut the door behind her. “He should be arriving soon,”
she whispered, shoving the linen robes at me and dropping the
tokens on the vanity.

“I’m meant to wear this?” I asked, unfolding one of the thin
garments.

“If you want access to the baths,” she said with a one-
shouldered shrug. “That, or your undergarments. Or nothing at
all.”

“I suppose I’ll have to live without my knives for a few hours,” I
sighed, shedding my outer jacket. Gannon strode to the balcony
and shut the doors behind him.

Skye turned to the vanity and brushed a finger over her petal-
pink lips. “I know Gannon was rash last night,” she said. “But
there is something strange about the alchemist, Drell. I can’t say I
blame Gannon for feeling ill at ease.”

“The man’s obviously got a violent streak,” I said while unlacing
my puff-sleeved bodice. “Were you afraid of him?”

She shrugged. “Not really. I knew I could kill him if I needed to,
or at least wound him and break free. But…” She paused, dabbing
her lips. “When he took that hot poker to my skin, it felt as if he
were branding me, as if he thought leaving a mark on me made
me his to own. I’m not sure I can explain.”

“You don’t have to,” I replied. “Some men are titillated by
provoking fear. It makes them feel powerful.” Grudgingly, I
removed the knife holsters from my thighs—I’d already had to
leave behind the larger dirk, my preferred weapon—and donned
the soft robe. I flicked my red hair out of the silky collar and met
Skye’s eyes in the vanity mirror. A pucker formed between her
brows. “Do you feel threatened?” I asked. “Do you want to pull out
and risk it all on Reed following him home?”

“Of course not,” she scoffed. “If the alchemist noticed the
pursuit he might mislead us and never return to the baths, and
we’d have to search for him like a needle in a haystack. I want to
finish what I’ve started. I’m merely explaining why Gannon acted
as he did. Something about the man burrowed under his skin.”

I glanced at the balcony doors. Sheer curtains obscured
Gannon’s lean outline. “Are you certain he didn’t do what he did
because he’s…perhaps…come to fancy you?”

Skye turned her back to the mirror, propping her palms on the
vanity. “I don’t know. I don’t want to know. Maybe if—when—we
defeat Tamarice, then I will want to know. But not right now.”

My heart ached a little hearing that. They’d known each other
since they were children, the butcher’s son and the tanner’s
daughter. Both were gruff, clever, tenacious, and stubborn. It was
thanks to their sameness, I supposed, that while they loved each
other as dear friends they also held each other at arm’s distance,
becoming acerbic and defensive when the trusty walls between
them began to crumble.

As I had every day since Tamarice had turned dark, I wondered
how our lives would be different without the storm of inevitable
war lingering just beyond the horizon.

I shivered a little in the airy robe, but folded my arms to fend off
the chill. “When I sent you in, I had no idea he was crafting a
weapon that could eradicate hundreds with a single blow. I didn’t
know he was so dangerous.”

“We know now and I’m still here, aren’t I?” Skye said. “There
are monsters from which we cannot flee.”

We stood silent for a few beats, sharing an unspoken
understanding.

“I should get back.” She fluffed her curls in the mirror before
stalking to the door.

“Skye,” I said, catching her elbow. “Don’t go to him; let him
come to you. He may suspect something if you don’t act afraid of
him after last night.”

Skye nodded. She would tease and toy, but if she was more
comfortable grabbing the nearest sharp object and threatening
dismemberment, she would. Enticement loosened lips more easily
than violence, yet when the former failed—as it occasionally did
when she asked one prying question too many—the latter came in
handy.

“Courage,” I whispered as she gripped the knob. She gave
another curt nod before leaving.

A tap on the balcony door preceded Gannon’s return. “He’s
here,” he announced darkly, but not without a tinge of excitement.
Even as my heart stuttered, I felt a wild sense of glee at the hope of
felling our prey.

He changed quickly while I tucked my knives into my bag and
shoved it under the bed. We descended arm in arm. Once outside,
we walked down a stepping-stone path lined with hedges and
statuettes. We showed our tokens to a guard and he stepped aside
so we could enter through the elaborate archway into the baths.

“Left,” Gannon whispered without moving his lips.

I glanced. Even though the outdoor baths were teeming with
bodies on this mild evening, I was immediately drawn to a thin
man with an oval face who was reclining along the lip of a crowded
pool, staring at Skye with an inscrutable expression. Receding
brown hair left a length of forehead gleaming above clever brows. I
knew Cecil Callebrand by both his grim intensity and the blistered

stripe of burned skin on his shoulder from Gannon’s attack. This
was the alchemist, the man plotting against our own Nisseran
army for a sack of gold. A shudder of anger worked its way
between my shoulder blades. I tightened my jaw and forced my
eyes away from him.

“He’s quite fixated on her, isn’t he?” Gannon remarked,
ushering me toward the nearest pool.

“It’s a good thing,” I said under my breath. “Stop glaring.”

“I’m not glaring.” He towed me against him with a hand at my
hip. As a reflex, we smiled at each other, relaxing into our
characters like breaking in leather.

The sun had begun to sink, and I managed to disrobe and dip
into the warm water without revealing much of anything, but no
one seemed to care anyway. Gannon and I gave each other as
much space as possible while feigning infatuation. Meanwhile,
Skye made rounds offering towels to guests.

All along, the alchemist watched her, his eyes narrowing as she
diligently avoided him. When she dropped her empty basket off
with the laundress and disappeared into the bathhouse without
coming his way, he clenched his teeth and followed her.

Gannon and I waited a few taut moments before slipping into
our robes and pursuing him through the atrium. Down the stairs
we went, into the dim, warm bathing area, where patrons swam
and received poolside oil massages from attendants. Skye now
held a basket of soaps and fragrances, and took her time
organizing them on shelves at the far end of the room. The
alchemist waded in the pool, watching her. But it wasn’t until she
finally cast a skittish glance his way, acknowledging his attention,
that he emerged and approached her.

Dripping, he reached over her to retrieve a towel, soaking the
shoulder of her gown.

“I’ll take a massage in the caldarium,” he said to her, imperious.
Skye turned, but before she could reply, another attendant
stepped in.

“She hasn’t been trained yet, sir. I’ll escort you to the hot baths
and give you an expert massage.”

“I’d prefer her,” he replied, gripping Skye by the elbow.

“Yes, sir,” the other attendant said with a bow. The alchemist
steered Skye around the pool and drove her down another set of
stairs.

The attendant’s worried gaze clung to Skye. Did she know
something about this man, beyond his obvious proclivity for
roughness and abuse?

I skirted around the pool and said, “I’ll take that massage. In
here.”

“Yes, madam. Please select one of our fine fragrant oils and join
me over there.” She gestured to a corner of the room with an
empty, cushioned table.

As I browsed, Gannon stepped up behind me, swept the hair
away from my nape, and breathed, “I like roses.”

I selected the rose oil. We’d added little details to various
characters enough times that I’d learned to embrace them
convincingly in the moment. “I think I’ll go down to the hot
baths,” he continued.

I pivoted, trying not to let the reprimand show on my face. “You
won’t wait for me?” I purred, though my actual meaning was
closer to Don’t you dare get involved. Let Skye work.

But Gannon used the lack of an explicit order to proceed. “We’ll
have plenty of time together,” he said, before he turned and jogged
down the steps.

Stifling a grunt of annoyance, I stepped over to meet the
attendant and slid my shoulders out of my robe. She gestured for
me to lie down and I complied. Her touch was kind and soft on my
tense muscles. “Is there much skill involved in massage?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. And it requires building strength in the hands.”

“But you don’t argue with the patrons when they want the new
girl,” I guessed with a canny smile.

She chuckled. “No. Especially…”

“Him?” I asked in a low voice.

She dropped her volume to match mine. People tended to trust
me if I asked the right questions. “Sir Callebrand is a friend of the
proprietor and one of our suppliers. He’s permitted to do whatever
he wishes.”

“Supplier of what?”

“Soaps and perfumes. He’s quite cagey about it. I only learned of
his trade because he’s particular about the scents and knows so
much about them. He even gives some of the girls here flower
names: Lilac, Rose, Marigold…Once, I asked him if he had a
garden at his workshop, just chatting a bit, but you’d have thought
I’d asked him for his most treasured secret. He didn’t seem to
want me to know he even had a shop.”

A perfumer. That explained it: the impunity with which he
seemed to abuse the staff, his permanent quarters here, his skill
with chemicals and mixtures. Perhaps he dabbled in alchemy for
amusement, not as a trade. Certainly any reputable alchemist
would have found Trumble’s dangerous request suspect. “So you
said he’s permitted to do whatever he wishes? What does that
mean?”

I heard her swallow. “One of the other attendants—he called her
Lily, but her name’s Harriet—refused his advances. Sir Callebrand
didn’t take it well. He smashed her face against a mirror and then
took his complaint straight to the innkeeper. The innkeeper didn’t
want to lose his discount on fragrances worth heaps of aurions
apiece, so he showed Harriet the door. Haven’t seen her since. I
hope she isn’t on the streets.”

“That’s wretched,” I whispered. A creeping fear knotted up the
muscles the attendant had just kneaded.

“Yes, well,” she said, reassuming her neutral tone. She clearly
felt she had divulged too much information. “Queen Dara has a
signature scent she orders for delivery every month. Would you
like to try it?” she asked with forced enthusiasm.

I consented and waited until she had massaged a meager drop
of luscious perfume at the base of my neck before I said, “You
volunteered to take the other girl’s place. Are you not afraid of
him?”

“He favors blondes and doesn’t pay me much mind. I used to
avoid him regardless, but after Harriet, I’ve tried to protect the
girls he fancies. I prefer to step in without saying too much—
scaring off the other girls could cost me. But forgive me, mistress.

Surely you prefer tranquil silence to maids’ gossip. Would you like
me to massage your lower back as well?”

“No, thank you,” I said, pulling my robe over my shoulders and
restraining myself from running to the caldarium. The steam
roiling from the baths was denser than midnight mountain fog. I
passed private, curtained alcoves, whose purpose was easy to
guess. When I entered the public bathing room, I found Gannon
sitting on a bench in the steamy area intended for working up a
cleansing sweat. He leaned his head back against the wall,
appearing relaxed, but I could tell he watched Skye and the
alchemist through the slits in his eyes. I resisted following his
gaze.

When I approached him, he took my hand, spun me around,
and coaxed me onto his lap. “He’s hurting her,” he whispered into
my ear.

I forced a giggle and leaned back to touch my lips to his neck.
“We’ll pull her out soon. Better to work with what we’ve got than
scare him away being greedy.”

I shifted in his embrace to finally look in Skye’s direction. At the
center of the room there was a hexagonal pool surrounded by
columns reaching to the domed ceiling. The alchemist reposed in
the water with his eyes closed, and Skye perched on the ledge,
reaching around his shoulder to rub oil into his neck. It took all of
my self-restraint not to grimace on her behalf.

“Miss!” I called, flagging her down as casually as possible. “We’d
like some damp cloths to cool off.”

Skye twisted to find her footing, but the alchemist reached back
to yank her close by her hair. Thankfully, she’d secured her wig
and knew not to resist the movement lest it rip away.

“Come right back,” he said, and she squeaked out an assurance
before rising to do my bidding.

The alchemist turned a murderous look on me. He had no
reason to suspect us of anything. Was this how he looked at
innocent strangers who stood between him and what he wanted,
what he thought belonged to him? What would he do if he found
out why we were here? If he knew we were enemies?

When Skye approached, Gannon opened his mouth, but she cut
off the inevitable expression of concern and whispered, “Nothing
useful yet.”

“He’s a perfumer and soap maker,” I whispered, accepting one
of the towels and dabbing my brow. A cloud of thick steam floated
by, offering us a bit of cover. “Secretive, but takes pride in his
work.”

“Must be why he’s calling me his ‘pretty orchid.’ What a clod.”

“That’s enough to act on,” Gannon said, accepting one of the
towels. “There are only so many soap shops in this city.”

“I’m not leaving anything to chance,” Skye hissed. “We’re
stopping this monster from giving Trumble that weapon, no
matter the cost. I’m getting the location, but you two shouldn’t
putter about. He seems suspicious of you.”

She didn’t wait for my approval before walking away. The back
panel of her gown caught a draft and fluttered open, exposing the
edge of the angry red burn that stretched the length of her thigh.
I’d been imagining the alchemist had dealt a quick poke, meant to
startle and intimidate and nothing more. Now I envisioned the
monster pressing the metal rod too long against her tender skin
while her scream tore through the sounds of merriment in the
tavern, loud enough to draw Gannon from his vital work.

He hadn’t just hoped to prod her into accepting his advances.
He had set out to hurt and humiliate her.

I ignored the pit in my stomach while Gannon and I spent a
while longer flirting, hesitant to leave Skye with the alchemist. I
made sure not to look in their direction again, using my nails like
claws on Gannon’s chin to keep him focused. “Let’s go back
outside,” I said aloud after a time. “I want to swim under the
stars.”

“I’d rather sweat it out a bit longer, love,” he said, patting my
hip with one hand and extracting the room key from his breast
pocket with the other. “It’s good for the health.”

I would strangle him. This was the second time he’d defied me
when I could do nothing to stop him without jeopardizing the
mission.

“Are you sure?” I asked, trailing my finger along his chest, but I
imbued the question with the weight of a thousand barking orders.
And he knew its true meaning: if he didn’t comply now, he was
done. I would write a scathing letter to the elders of Darmeska and
he would return home in disgrace, with no employment prospects
except his father’s butcher shop.

“Aye, just a bit longer,” he said, so casually that the flames of my
temper ignited and it was all I could do to suffocate an outburst.
But I could hardly blame him without blaming myself—I’d seen
clear as day that he was emotionally compromised, yet I had let
him resume this assignment with naught but a few harsh words.

“Fine, then,” I said, plucking the room key from his palm and
climbing off his lap. I itched to take hold of my knives. Gannon
refusing to comply made this mission feel far more precarious, far
more dangerous, and I didn’t want to be caught in an altercation
without a weapon. “Don’t be long.”

My bare feet slapped along the wet tiles to the beat of my raging
heart. I clenched one fist and immediately uncurled it. This was
not the time to let emotion take hold. No, only a calm head would
do. I paused to breathe. The air was fresher now that I’d emerged
from the underground depths of the bathhouse.

I realized I was passing the rows of private alcoves again when I
caught the measured murmur of a furtive male voice. My chest
stopped pounding. I was instantly calm. My training and
experience might not have prepared me to bring to heel a
rebellious spy in my employ, but observing without being noticed
was still as natural as breathing. I took one silent step toward the
wall and pressed flush against it.

“…why not some ugly street wretch, or a dog?” the voice asked.

“It’s not our place to ask questions,” a second male voice replied
in a whisper. “We watch the demonstration, we make the
payment, we deliver the product.”

My blood quickened. The demonstration? The alchemist must
have already made a great deal of progress by the time we had
intercepted Trumble’s inquiry about the weapon’s status. We had
involved ourselves just in time.

“He seems a bit demented, doesn’t he?” the first one asked. “I’ll
be right glad to be done with him.”

“We won’t be done with him,” the other replied. “There will be
another delivery, if all goes to plan.”

“At least we’ll be coming back to Cadoma to pick up the next
load. This place is…” The first one whistled low. “The lassies don’t
look like that where I’m from.”

He sounded downright giddy, but by his pragmatic partner’s
next reply I knew he might prove to be more of a problem.

“We’re not here to play. After this, we’re on the lookout.”

The other scoffed. “He thinks the couple in the room next to
ours may be watching him. They seemed perfectly regular to me.
But Callebrand’s only got one oar in the water, if you know what I
mean.”

“I still don’t want to be indisposed too long. Where are those
little tarts, anyway? How long does it take to prepare for a
massage?”

The question acted as a warning, but not enough of one. I
launched myself away from the wall just as the curtain to my left
swished aside. With even a second more to prepare, I might have
composed myself, pretended to be one of the attendants they were
clearly expecting. Instead, I walked briskly toward the stairs
leading up and out, without glancing behind me.

I could feel their gazes prickling on the back of my neck, a sticky
sensation, like walking through cobwebs. At first, I didn’t hear any
indications of a pursuit. I let myself feel relief, at least the fleeting
kind that comes as a result of escaping immediate danger. The
panic of having possibly compromised the mission would set in
soon enough.

I at last reached the night air. Twilight had long ago come and
gone, and the lanterns around the perimeter of the enclosed area
turned the statuettes into looming shadows. The moisture on my
skin and hair cooled to ice under the silver stars. When the guard
opened the gate leading out to the gardens, I used the excuse of a
thankful nod in his direction to glance over my shoulder and
ensure I was leaving alone.

But two men pursued me with swaggering steps, heads down,
eyes blazing with suspicion.

Without my weapons, I didn’t know what else to do. I had to
pretend nothing was amiss, retreat to my room, retrieve my
knives, and try to tell the others to get out so we could regroup.

I shoved open the door to the tavern and couldn’t help but walk
briskly toward the stairs. At the sounds of thudding footsteps
behind me, I broke into a run. I willed my hands to be still while I
jammed the key in the lock and rattled the door open, quietly
pressing it closed behind me right when they reached the upper
story. With the delicate touch of a seamstress, I slowly, silently
clicked the lock into place and tried to slow my breaths in the
darkness. I tiptoed to the bed and knelt, removing the satchel that
held my breeches and knife holsters. I desperately wished for my
dirk, but it was harder to bury under skirts than the slim daggers
that hugged my thighs. They would have to do.

I listened to the heavy, measured footfalls in the corridor as I
wiggled into my breeches without shedding my robe. A thousand
thoughts flitted through my mind as I buckled my knife holsters:
Should I escape from the balcony or fight? Try to overpower and
question them on my own, or get help from the others? Make sure
Skye was safe, or do whatever needed to be done to keep the
weapon out of their hands?

Without warning, the door burst open, the lock rattling loose.
But only one large shadow blocked the corridor light. I heard a
creak behind me, and before I could even flinch toward my knives,
something sharp and cold pressed against my throat.

“Don’t move,” said the attacker, pinning me against him. The
balcony must have been all too easy to scale with the help of the
surrounding hedges.

The other man, who had sunken eyes and a scraggly beard,
stepped in and closed the door behind him.

Danger prickled in my veins, the desperation of a cornered
animal. I could take two men with fair warning, but the fight
hadn’t even begun and I was already in the worst possible
position. I swallowed, his knife cutting against my windpipe, ready
to dig into my flesh and bleed me out.

“Who are you working for?” the one blocking the door asked,
striding forward. “And who with?”

“I’ll tell you,” I said, barely raising my right arm in a gesture of
capitulation. If this maneuver didn’t work, I’d be left to drown in
my own blood.

My movement and words had my captor thinking I’d
surrendered. But instead, I gripped his wrist with my left hand
and rolled his arm downward, pinning it to my chest. I raised my
right arm higher, restricting his elbow with my shoulder until I
could pivot, slip under his arm, and bend his elbow behind his
back, rotating him. I crushed his instep with my heel and drove
him toward the balcony, flinging wide the door he’d so quietly
managed to open. I used the momentum of his stumbling feet to
drive him over the railing. He wasn’t a large man, but he hit the
ground below with a thud, his knife clattering at his side.

In the half second it took me to face the bigger man, I caught a
glimpse of the alchemist dragging Skye by the wrist toward the
stairs leading down to the street. Her blond head lolled to one
side, the wig rumpled and loose. She looked sedated. Oh, no. Skye
was a formidable fighter, but if he’d managed to incapacitate her,
she’d be no match for him. Anger burned up, but my other
attacker was as quick and stealthy as the first. He ripped me
backward by my hair and I emitted a sharp cry as he tossed me to
the floor. But before he could sink his knife into my belly, Gannon
burst through the door. While my attacker was briefly distracted, I
unsheathed my right knife and plunged it into his thigh. Hot blood
rushed over my hands as the villain bellowed in pain. I ripped the
knife away and he frantically covered the wound, attempting to
stanch the flow of blood.

“Can you handle him?” I asked Gannon as the attacker struggled
to his feet, gritting his teeth. He wouldn’t be an easy kill. “The
alchemist took Skye.”

“Right behind you,” Gannon said.

I gave him the bloodied knife and tramped downstairs,
unsheathing the other. I shoved through the tavern crowd and
pounded over the steps leading to the street, but stumbled over
Reed, who was sprawled across the cobblestones. I thought the

worst as I bent over him, but he blinked his eyes open and
gestured in the direction they’d gone. “He has a sedative,” he
mumbled, eyelids drooping closed again. “Sneaky bastard.”

I took off running blindly where he’d indicated, searching for
any clues Skye might have been lucid enough to leave behind. Sure
enough, I found a clump of blond wig hair at the corner of a
winding alley, and another waiting at a second turn. “Good girl,” I
whispered, following the trail and leaving it intact for Gannon.

The journey was longer than I expected, and I passed from the
finer quarters, polished and packed with shops to please visitors,
to the reeking labyrinths of cramped stone buildings with strings
of laundry fluttering like ghosts. Here there were no signs or
markings, just peeling doors and cracked cobblestones that
threatened to trip me up. I lost my way for too long, long enough
for terrible things to surely happen, before I retraced my steps and
found another tangle of wig hair hooked on a doorknob. This one
was stained red. I hoped it was because Skye had managed to fight
back.

With a deep breath, I quietly tried the knob and found that the
hair had been deftly used to keep the lock from clicking into place.

The door opened, and I stared into the shadows of the
alchemist’s shop.

I slid my remaining knife from its sheath while my eyes
adjusted. The room held cast-iron pots, fine-meshed sieves, jars of
beef tallow, burned logs, and shelves packed with little flasks and
tools. Hanging plants flourished along the windows and a rolling
cart loaded with colorful soaps sat behind the door. Sensing this
room was empty, I dared take a step in the direction of the tight,
dark stairway at the back. I was grateful that the steps were made
of stone and not of creaking wood as I tiptoed upstairs and found a
solid-wood door at the top. Preparing for another violent
altercation, I pushed the door open and brandished my knife.

Beyond the door sprawled another workshop, this one packed
with charts, books, diagrams, oddly shaped glass containers, and
metal contraptions. Thick curtains covered the windows. Sulfur
singed my nostrils, and there was another smell too, a putrid note
that made me want to gag. The shelves along the wall were

cluttered, and it looked like all the items from one tier had been
knocked over. Blood and a substance as black as tar were smeared
on the wall. Skye’s blond wig lay in a tangle on the floor.

Terror took hold of me. I stepped forward and used shaking
fingers to pluck the single piece of parchment from the
uncluttered desk at the center of the room. It was a long formula,
detailed instructions for how to convert the Galgethian granules
into a combustible mixture—into the weapon Tamarice had asked
for. The alchemist had scribbled shadowfire at the top of the first
page. My eyes snagged on words that brought to mind flames and
suffering and death: sulfur, salt, ashes, quicklime. I skimmed to
the end and read a free-flowing, liquid form, black as pitch,
stored in copper receptacles until application. Must be handled at
night, as it ignites when exposed to sunlight or fire.

The sound of wheels rattling over cobblestones drew me to the
window. I looked down at the alley and saw yet another man—this
one with a long sword at his hip—loading copper pots into a horse-
drawn wagon. He covered the goods with a canvas. The man I’d
thrown off the balcony approached him, massaging his bloodied
head. “Rafe’s dead,” I heard him say as they mounted the wagon
seat. “It’s just us.”

“What about him?” the other asked, gesturing at the alchemist’s
shop.

“He’ll meet us at the southern crossroad.”

I hurried to clomp back down the stairs so I could catch the
wagon, but a small, desperate cry for help coming from
somewhere inside the room halted me.

But then Gannon called my name from the bottom of the stairs
and I felt ripped in every direction.

“Go after the wagon!” I yelled. “Trumble’s men have the
weapon. Go!”

Though Gannon had snuck into the workshop gingerly enough
not to be heard, his swift retreating footsteps echoed in my chest.
He would catch up. He had to.

I whipped around to find the source of the cry for help, and
instead found the alchemist standing before me, holding a needle
dipped in some sort of brown resin. Behind him, a secret door

hidden by a bookcase stood ajar and a woman peered out. I
thought she was Skye thanks to her long blond hair, until I
remembered that Skye’s wig lay on the floor.

The alchemist and I jolted into action at the same time. He
gripped my wrist and I stayed the hand holding the needle. He
gritted his teeth, his closed fist shaking with the longing to jab the
point into my neck. He wasn’t very strong—I supposed he meant
to sneak up behind me and use the element of surprise—and I
managed to switch positions with him and drive him back toward
the stairs.

His foot slipped, but he didn’t release me to grapple for control,
as I was foolish enough to expect. Instead, he dragged me with
him and we tumbled together in a mass of limbs. The luxury of
semipreparedness allowed me to drop my knife, roll into a ball,
and protect my head, while the alchemist smacked down the stone
steps with hard thwaps. He landed in a heap at the bottom, his
body breaking my fall as I tumbled after him. His face was a
bloodied mess as he rolled over, yet he managed to grab my leg as
I tried to heave off him, nearly taking me down. I caught myself on
a shelf and used both hands to lift a large glass jug of cream-
colored beef tallow, swinging it high before smashing it over his
head.

He dropped back and fell utterly still. I took a deep breath and
leaned against the wall.

The woman I’d seen peeking out from behind the bookcase
paused at the top of the stairs, wearing a gauzy robe like the
prostitutes from the baths. Then she rushed down, picked up my
knife from where it balanced on the edge of the stairs, and lunged.

I scuttled back—the odds were never good for an unarmed
person in a knife fight—but she dropped to her knees beside the
alchemist and jabbed the blade into the dead man’s chest with a
tormented roar. She ripped it out, spraying blood over both of our
faces, and paused. Then she jabbed it again and again, sobbing,
crying, spraying so much blood and beef tallow that I had to turn
my head. Eventually, with another sob, she let the knife clatter to
the ground and hurried back up the stairs. I noticed blood-
speckled lilies tucked into her blond plait.

“Are you Harriet?” I asked, retrieving my knife and stepping
over the mutilated corpse of the alchemist.

She paused at the landing above us and turned. “He…he called
me Lily.” She looked as if she wanted to crumple and sob again,
but she said, “I have to free the others.”

I hurried up the stairs after her, my battered bones aching with
each movement. “Others?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ve heard them screaming. There must be others.” While
she moved in a flurry around the room, shoving aside bookcases
and desks on her hunt for secret spaces, I peeked into the room
from which she and the alchemist had emerged. It was a lavish
bedchamber with white canopies and soft cushions. There were
robes, dresses, jewels, and a vanity lined with fragrance bottles.

“Skye?” I called, joining Harriet in her search.

“Here!” Harriet said, fitting her fingers around a door hidden
behind a shelf holding breakable items that seemed to be glued in
place, a clever deterrent.

Behind the door lay musty darkness sliced with a meager strip
of moonlight from a small window. The putrid smell that I’d
caught a whiff of in the workshop was stronger here, and I feared
what we would find.

Two young women slumped together on the floor. They wore
ragged clothes and their blond hair was streaked with oil and filth.
One of them was in a worse state than the other—her left arm was
shriveled and covered in sores, the flesh tight and charred. She lay
still. I clamped a hand over my mouth.

The other girl blinked her eyes open and scrambled away, like a
fly trapped in a web, attempting to flee its inevitable fate.

“It’s all right, loves,” Harriet said, beckoning them. “He’s dead.
He’s gone. He can’t hurt you.”

The conscious girl’s eyes went wide. She swallowed hard and
reached to shake the other girl. “Bess, wake up,” she rasped, but
the other didn’t respond.

“Is she…?” I started.

“Just sedated,” Harriet answered.

Bess groaned and stirred, cradling her injured arm. She was so
pale, so sickly. How long had they been here?

“From what I could hear, he was using her to test the
shadowfire,” Harriet said as she ducked inside. “She would scream
every morning…I suppose when the sun shone in from that
window.” She bent to help the unconscious young woman to her
feet. I steeled myself against the smells and filth in the chamber. I
now had a better idea of what sort of “demonstration” the
alchemist had been planning.

“Where’s the other girl?” I asked Harriet. “That’s her wig there
on the floor.”

“I don’t know,” Harriet said, shaking her head. “All I heard was
a struggle when he came back. I figured—”

“He gave her a choice,” the conscious woman sobbed. “He said
she could choose who would be used for the shadowfire
demonstration: one of us, or her. She chose to go. She saved us.
She tried to fight but the sedative hadn’t worn off. He tied her up
and painted her with the shadowfire. He took her away.”

Horror hit me with such surreal force I had to question whether
I had wandered into a nightmare. But still, my legs charged down
the stairs and leapt over the alchemist’s miserable corpse. I tore
down the alley in a fog of delirious desperation. Trumble’s men
would have to move slowly with the copper pots weighing down
their wagon, but Gannon was traveling on foot, at least until he
was able to fetch Dusty or Victor from the stables outside the Old
King’s Baths.

And Skye was trapped helplessly beneath the copper canisters in
that cart, soaked in the very substance that could fell an army.



I ran through the streets of Cadoma until my muscles were in
agony, my lungs burned, and the saturated blue of night had
begun to drain away from the eastern sky. I claimed Dusty from
the stables—Gannon had already taken Victor—and pressed on in
utter desperation.

At last, I burst out of the city and the cobblestone street faded
into a dirt road belted by fields. The dawning sun threatened to
break free of the horizon. Hopelessness washed over me in a gut-
wrenching wave.

I squeezed my legs around Dusty’s flanks, urging him onward.

Demonstration. The word cut through my thoughts along with
the image of the captive young woman’s withered arm. Gannon
didn’t know what the alchemist had planned for Skye, what he’d
done to those other poor women.

Thanks to the faint light, I didn’t see the wagon until I had
nearly passed it up. It had diverted from the dirt road into a
shallow ditch, and the horse hitch had broken, leaving the cargo
stuck. I looked around and found three figures staggered amid the
knee-high grasses. Two were sparring against one—Trumble’s
men against Gannon, who was clutching his bloody side. He had
already taken a bad blow. He brandished his own dirk and the
smaller knife I’d given him, hardly a match for two men, one of
whom wielded a sword.

With an angry cry, I charged, driving Dusty toward the man
with the sword to run him down. But gentle Dusty was no
warhorse. He balked and jerked to a halt instead of following my
commands, tossing me off in the process. I tried and failed to cling
to the pommel as the world jarred and spun. I bounced through
the grass and rolled to a painful stop, groaning as I drew my knife.
The world had barely righted itself by the time the man I’d thrown
over the balcony engaged me. He was less gifted in knife combat
than I, and with nothing but a slice across my ribs I managed to
knock the knife from his hand. He flinched toward it. I looked at
Gannon and found him barely managing to stay upright, fighting
back aptly enough to keep mortal injury at bay, but not aptly
enough to win.

I turned back to my opponent, who was bent over, frantically
searching for his weapon in the early light. The sooner I got rid of
him, the sooner I could rush to Gannon’s aid as he had rushed to
mine.

But as my opponent scrambled for his knife, a shadowy figure
attacked him, kicking up under his chin and sending him flying

onto his back. As the sun leaked its early light across the yellow
fields, I recognized the attacker as Skye only by her hair; her arms,
chest, legs, and gown were covered in the liquid substance that
was black as pitch. She slipped out of the loosened bonds she must
have been working on and tore a gag from her mouth.

The fields around us began to glow gold in the burgeoning light.
I roared out a warning, but Skye ignored it, shoving down
Trumble’s man with her slick hand and fumbling for the knife he
had never managed to retrieve. She stood and whirled to look at
Gannon, who was in the midst of dropping to his knees, utterly at
the mercy of our enemy. The swordsman reared back to deal a
deadly blow. But Skye charged, pouncing to drive the knife into his
back.

As he sank to his knees, Skye at last turned her attention to the
rising sun.

“Get back in the wagon!” I yelled.

It was near enough. She could make it.

But I watched her pale eyes calculate the distance, watched her
make her deadly decision. The wagon was near enough, yes, but
also too near—too near to us. If she didn’t quite make it, she would
sacrifice us all.

So she ran.

I screamed. A clap like thunder pounded through the air and a
flash of light sprouted from the earth where Skye stood. Flames
roared out in awe-striking plumes.

The flames ripped out in bright bursts, like magic that only an
elicromancer could wield, disintegrating a life to ash and bone.
The small amount she’d smeared on Trumble’s men while fighting
was enough to catch their clothes on fire, and they screamed, their
screams mixing with mine, and Gannon’s.

Blinded by tears, I let a sob rupture out of me as I fell to my
knees. I knew I would never forget Gannon’s cries of torment, and
I longed to close out the sound, to awaken and find I was
surrounded by hay in a dusty barn, with yesterday still ahead of
me. It was a dream, a terrible dream. What sort of monster would
lock people away and torture them, put them through trials of
fiery pain and death? It was worse than any nightmare I’d had in

all my years of fearing what horrors Tamarice might bring upon
the realm.

I would awaken. It would end. It had to.

But it didn’t. The nightmare persisted, a mark of scorched earth,
a bright fire gnawing at the fields, a young man in desperate love,
pouring out his heart to nothing but smoke and ruin.



The carriage rattled down the dirt road, away from the city of
Cadoma. The faint tang of scorched earth and sulfur lingered in
the fields even days later.

I closed my eyes to trap a stinging tear, found solace in the
angry memory of pouring the pots of shadowfire into a lake and
burning the alchemist along with everything he had once owned to
ash and twisted remains: formulas, research, chemicals,
instruments. Every last trace of his life stamped out, just like
hers.

And Trumble…the second we didn’t need him, I would make
sure he knew her pain, and knew it well.

And Tamarice…

“Tell us about Darmeska.” Bess interrupted my thoughts,
picking at the bandage covering the stub of her amputated
forearm. She looked at me with eyes full of hope. She had lived on
the street before the alchemist had lured her to his shop with
promises of steady work several months ago. The other girl, Lettie,
had worked at the baths for only a few weeks by the time she
disappeared. He had treated her like a pet, merely testing his
fragrances on her while he tortured Bess with shadowfire. When
he had grown bored with her, he had kidnapped Harriet.

Lettie had a family to welcome her home, but Harriet and Bess
had nowhere else to go.

“Well, it’s very cold in the mountains,” I said. “But the stars are
crisp and bright, and the fires are always roaring in the great hall
of the fortress.”

“That sounds lovely,” Bess said.

“What else?” Harriet asked.

I thought for a moment, but Gannon, who had been glaring
unflinchingly at the scorched earth as we passed, said quietly,
“The tea is stout and warms you to your toes.” He rested a hand on
the stiff bandage beneath his tunic and took a swig of the alcoholic
tincture the healer had given him for the pain.

I managed to smile. “It’s a place and people worth fighting for. I
wish I could go straight back there now, but we’ll be parting ways
with you out west. There’s much work to do to honor Skye’s
sacrifice.”

“To destroy Tamarice and all who serve her,” Gannon added.

“To save the lives Skye would have saved had she lived on,”
Reed said.

After a short silence, Gannon said quietly, “I’ll drink to that,”
and took another swig before passing it around.

KINGDOM OF ASH AND BRIARS
Paperback on sale 9·11·18

REALM OF RUINS
On sale 12·4·18


Click to View FlipBook Version