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The Hunters Gift

Chapter Text

 

Summer to Winters Start
in the 35th year of the reign of
Jonathan IV and Thayet, his Queen

474H.E. (Human Era)

The summer harvest festival closed with a tournament.

Ribbons of red and gold and green twined over every exposed post, atop houses and vendors’ stalls, fluttering in the breeze—or, since a breeze came so rarely in the stinking hot city, fluttering when the children ran underneath them and tugged and pulled at the ribbons, shrieking their delight. The festival was a monstrous, sprawling thing that had eaten up the open fields in only a few short hours. Stalls and carts and entirely new buildings had been raised in the small hours of that first morning and now, after nearly a week, there was hardly an inch left in the city that stood free of the clamour.

Stalls filled with produce lined the main thoroughfare. What was normally wide enough for four carts to trundle side-by-side had become stoppered up by the crush of stalls and shoppers and the Players that walked the streets. Some danced in glittering costumes and painted faces, others walking high above the common folk on stilts, and yet others still could be seen juggling fire and balls of light and live birds that flew squawking overhead. Carts piled high with produce—crisp apples and plump tomatoes begging to be smashed and diced and crushed into sweet sauces and strews—creaked along next to folk carrying trays of bread, loaves and loaves of them, the browned outsides splitting open with that perfect crunch to reveal the soft insides, the scent of fresh-baked bread pulling gawkers in droves. Jams and berries and calls of ‘Fish! Direct from Caynn! None fresher! Fish!’ and Yamani hawkers passing out green sheets of salted seaweed and rices and intricately sliced fish, drew many to their stalls. Paper lanterns with beautiful designs were cut and prepared by the hundred. Toys were desperately bought for sobbing children, puppets dangled enticingly on colourful strings, and more than a few folk haggled viciously over the price of a rat-catcher to be, their children looking on with hopeful eyes at their soon-to-be pets.

Outside the city walls was the main tourney court. Nobles and commoners alike gathered here; whispermen and thieves found their place in both circles, slipping between them with ease. The market may have been profitable, but it was the tournament that drew them with the lure of new faces and new skills to be bought and sold; impressive feats of strength and skill were desirable for people of all walks of life, and not all of the warriors participating would turn away coin in the name of honour or chivalry.

Laid out on packed dirt within hastily raised fences was a long rectangular court surrounded on three sides by raised seats for the spectators. At the north end of the court were two small rings in the dirt, no more than ten feet wide. All week, any who put up the entry fee could take up a staff to fight and win. Or lose. At the south end was an archery range with walls and wards layered thick about it to stop a stray arrow from finding a target in the crowd.

The real draw, however, was the centre court. A thirty-foot wide arena sat barren and empty. Opposite this arena, a squat building had been erected. It was well-fortified and a long bench had been set in full view of the court, a long purple cushion running the length of it. Two banners draped from the roof of this building. The first proudly boasted a silver crown and sword over a blue field. The second, smaller and set below the first, bore a tree and three stars—both in grey—set upon on a green field.

Lord Titus rested in the recesses of this building. The past year had been kind to him; whatever grip the Sickness had on him had loosened and he had regained some weight and strength. He held himself straight and tall, and his clothes finally sat properly rather than draping over too-thin shoulders and buckled twice at the waist. His skin was no longer sallow or stretched tight over his skull and, though he still kept his head bald, the Lord suited the look now. The only sign of distress were the deep lines that worry had dragged between his brows and around his mouth. Brown eyes—clear and focused—scanned the crowd. Thin lips barely shifted when he spoke.

‘Any sign of her?’

‘None, milord.’

‘Would you go out and check?’

There was no worry to his tone for any eavesdropper to pick up on, but Corin saw it in the way Lord Titus rubbed at the heavy gold ring on his left hand. And the fact that the Lord had ridden out all the way to Corus after her.

‘Yes, milord,’ he agreed immediately and stepped away from his Lord with a shallow bow.

There was no exit to the building—to prevent anyone from surprising the Haryse guard, or the King’s—so Corin left out the open front, dried grass crunching underfoot. Noise slammed into him; the clamour of bells and yells, barking dogs and screaming children, horseshoes clanging on cobblestone, music from what feels every second stall.

There was no way to tell if the music was good or not.

Corin moved out of the way of a small parade of gaudily dressed Players, returning their cheerful grins with an uncertain one of his own. Haryse was no stranger to festivals or to visitors but even so…they’d never hosted the sheer number of people that had poured—and continue to pour—out from the city. Corin wandered through the market, searching half-heartedly. Not for a small girl—though not so small anymore, he corrected himself, remembering how much Lexa had shot up over her year away, and how Mara had cried with pride as she stitched and darned and hemmed more clothes to give "little Lexa" growing room for the next year. Rather, Corin searched for an enormous man standing head and shoulders above the crowd.

After a time, Corin stopped to buy a roll from one of the bakeries. Families had set out blankets beneath a nearby tree and Corin headed for it, treat in hand; he made it two steps before a large hand clamped down onto his shoulder. The owner of the hand turned him and Corin realised as they did that they were much stronger than even he was; his mind raced to understand what he might have done wrong, and still was racing as he turned and came face-to-face—or, face to shoulder to the larger man—with Gustus.

'Little far from home, aren't ye?'

Corin’s face nearly split in two with the force of his grin. ‘Gustus!’

Clasping the man’s hand in his own, Corin shook it firmly. He couldn’t help but look over the man for any sign of upset, of physical hurt. Gus’s hair was longer and wilder than ever, beard ever as bushy—though it looked as though he had made a festive attempt that morning and plaited orange and yellow threads into the braids, and carved wooden clasps and tiny brass decorations shaped into suns dangled from their ends. He looked strong; a head and a half taller than Corin, who had never been short, and twice as broad. Corin was happy to see he looked the same as he had when the pair had left Haryse nearly two months earlier: healthy. Unharmed.

‘You look good,’ Gus announced, finishing his own examination of Corin. He grinned, white teeth flashing. ‘Like a young Lord.’

Corin stammered, plucks at his tunic. The material was incredibly fine, and a handsome green that suits his darker skin nicely. ‘I—Lord Titus has me working with him lately,’ he said.

Gus nodded. Likely, he had already known that.

‘Where is the lord?’ He followed Corin’s eyes to the tournament arena and the building behind it. ‘Organised the whole festival, I heard. Did he say why?’

‘No. Have you seen—’ Corin stopped. ‘Course you have. Is she safe? Is she…alright?’

Gus’s eyes glinted. His face remained impassive—harsh planes of stone buried beneath a wild tangle of beard and brows. Indecipherable. ‘She’s safe.’

‘And alright?’

‘As much as she can be.’

Corin nodded at that. He didn’t know exactly what had happened to their girl but he knew enough of what it meant. Mara had told him about the night terrors, the long days where Lexa hadn’t spoken. The way she had flinched when folk came into the same room as her, or the same orchard.

The screaming.

‘I ‘spect he’ll be wantin’ t’ see me, then? She’s not here with me,’ Gus told Corin.

They headed off together to the pavilion.

‘Do ye enjoy the work?’ Gus asked him after a while. No matter his size, there was no way they can move quickly amongst the densely packed crowd.

Corin considered the question for a moment before he nods. ‘I still get t’ do all the work I like. Building an’ fixin’ things. Get up for the grazing, same as always,’ he grins. After fourteen years of waking early to feed the cattle, he suspected it would take as many years to break him of the habit. ‘Milord has me reading more. Doin’ the figuring. I like it well enough.’

He fell silent. Ordinarily, he would have told Gus all of it—that he suspects Lord Titus might just be lonely, no matter how much he says he sees potential in Corin—but a feeling of tension persists. He couldn't forget that last day in the courtyard of the castle. Gustus and the Lady on one side. Lord Titus on the other.

‘That’s good, lad,’ Gustus said, and he sounded sincere when he added, ‘Titus needs the help an’ I’m glad yer there for him.’

//

The pavilion was packed with richly-dressed folk by the time they returnd. Many of them, Corin saw, weren’t dressed for the occasion at all. It was summer still but they were drenched in handsome cloaks and dripped with jewels and cloying fragrances. Corin was relieved that Titus was his lord; he thought the servants following those gaudy ponies didn’t look as happy with their lot. It hadn’t occurred to him to turn away Lord Titus’s offer when it came—he had always been happy, proud even, to help the Haryse house in whatever way he could—but when a man walked past trussed up in lavender nonsense, which looks like it would’ve been hard to get into about five years and several feasts ago, Corin knew that if that man had asked him to be his house steward, he would have said no. Corin wanted no part of the work a hapros like that would entrust him with. The servant keeping pace with the hapros—a young man who pulled off the lavender look far better—gave Corin a sly, long-suffering look. It was followed by a grin that made Corin flush.

He smiled nervously back.

With a quiet clearing of his throat, Corin turned his attention away from the young man and led Gus around to the front of the pavilion. 

A guard—red-faced under his helmet and armour—held out a gauntleted hand to stop them.

‘No entry.’

Corin blinked. He was of a height with the man, if not a little taller, and though he didn’t wear armour or a sword, his shoulders were equally as broad and strong from years of field world.

‘Forgive me,’ he said quietly, the northern burr sounding out of place to his own ears after being surrounded by the strident city accent. His ears burned hot, feeling Gus at his side watching their interaction. ‘My name is Corin. I am the house steward to Lord Titus of Haryse. This is Captain Bruin, Captain of the Haryse standing men-at-arms. We would like,’ he swallowed, pushed hastily through the rest of his words. ‘We would like to pass and stand with our lord, if you please.’

The guard frowned at him. The fingers of his metalled gauntlets creaked as he balled his fist. ‘I said you can’t pass. Step back, or I’ll make you step back.’

‘Lay a hand on that weapon, lad, and ah’ll make it so ye can’t do anything with it again, y’hear?’ Gustus had such a friendly manner about him when he was threatening violence. It made Corin’s shoulders loosen and he unknowingly stood taller, more confidently.

The guard looked between the two of them again. Cleared his throat. Without looking away from them, he called to another guard. ‘Datis, check with the Lord Padraig.’

‘Yessir!’

The guard to his side clicked his heels smartly and strode within, returning a moment later with a stocky man, steel-haired and flint-eyed. Crows feet well-creased at the corners of his eyes and they deepened when he squinted against bright day to examine them both. A pink scar stopped shy of cutting down through thin lips and it had healed over, leaving him with a look of permanent disapproval. His nose was thick and rather resembled an arrowhead—his nostrils flared when the man identified Gustus and he made his way over, quick strides showing none of his age or the years of heavy fighting he had been through.

‘Captain,’ Lord Padraig haMinch greeted Gus brusquely, shaking his hand. ‘Good to see you.’

‘Milord. This is Corin Eornhald, house steward of Lord Titus.’

Padraig spared Corin a sharp nod. ‘Eornhald. Good to meet you. These two may enter, sergeant,’ Padraig told the guard who had stopped them and escorted them inside.

Corin nodded to the sergeant as they entered. Gustus eyed him darkly.

It was much cooler within the pavilion than it had been outside. Cooler than it had been before Corin had left, he realised. The effect was brought about by a half-dozen cooling enchantments working to keep a light breeze swirling around the building. It smelled like it might be faintly scented with perfume too, Corin thought, sniffing the air.

‘Jasmin.’

Corin started, wondering if he had been too obvious with the sniffing. But Padraig wasn’t looking at him. Instead, he was stood next to a young woman who examined the room and its occupants with clear interest.

With an angular face and discomfortingly piercing blue eyes, the girl—young woman, in her mid-twenties perhaps—was altogether too sharp to be considered pretty but it in no way stopped her from being immediately fascinating. She wore green riding breeches tucked into well-worn boots and a blouse in so light a shade of blue it was nearly white. Over her outfit was a practical summer coat, a pocket heavy with a rectangular shape Corin couldn’t make out, and a very functional knife hung on her hip. Corin found himself nodding with appreciation at the young woman’s sensible clothes.

‘Jasmin, what are you doing here?’

‘Thought I'd try my hand at some of the tourney games,’ the young woman told him, tugging on a pair of gloves. Lord Padraig’s expression didn’t change as far as Corin could see but the girl must know him better because she rolled her eyes and tossed her braid back over her shoulder. ‘It’s perfectly safe. I can smell the wards from here.’

‘You can’t smell wards.’

‘You can’t. I can. Besides,’ she added, eyes flashing with glee so palpable Corin could feel it needling him even from a distance, ‘I wasn’t asking for permission.’ Rocking up onto the balls of her feet, the girl pressed a kiss to Padraig’s cheek and strode out into the arena.

Padraig stared after her for a moment, teeth grinding. Then, ‘Lord Titus is in the private room with His Majesty. You’ll have to wait here.’

Corin blinked. ‘Private room?’

Padraig gestured to the side; Corin caught a glimpse of a wall—a perfectly normal wall with no door at all. Except…now that his attention was drawn to it, he could see the outline of a door. A moment passed and he found himself looking at the bench, and a man’s indecorous outfit, and forgetting all about the door.

‘They’ll be out soon enough. Excuse me,’ Padraig said rather brusquely, and he followed the same path the girl—Jasmin—had taken only moments earlier.


In what feels like the last bastion of peace in the city—an old and overgrown garden squashed between Temple and Hilltop Districts—an anxious voice splintered the silence.

‘Lady? Lady, please, get back here!’

One hand slapped onto the top of the high wall that skirted the garden. Then another. A head appeared next, face crumpled in determination. All of this was followed very quickly by a pair of shoulders and then the rest of the girl’s body as she ignored her keeper and swung over the top of the wall. She rolled awkwardly over it to the other side so she was dangling by her fingertips. Craning her neck to gauge the distance to the ground, the girl must have deemed it survivable because she allowed herself to fall the final four feet. It was an awkward landing. She fell to the left as her ankle twisted but she ignored it, scrambling to her feet. Sparing the wall – and whoever she left behind it – one more thoughtful look, the girl limped further into the garden and into the darkness beneath the sheltering trees.

There was no one else within the Grove. If there had been, however, they would have been hard pressed to identify the girl. She was dressed plainly, if neatly, in a much-repaired tunic and breeches, her sensible boots scuffed at the toes. Earlier, she had been much cleaner and her riotous brown curls had not been quite such a tangle but the escape had involved a hedge or two and now she was the proud, unaware bearer of several twigs and leaves and one unconcerned caterpillar. Despite the limp, the girl walked with the purposeful stride of someone much older and her face was solemn, even wan; nevertheless, her child-soft cheeks betrayed her as no older than twelve. A proud chin jutted stubbornly forward. The lips above it were set flat and stern. Her eyes—a pretty green until light hit and then the brilliant green was flecked with yellow, as though they had caught the exact moment the forest turns to autumn—were sharp and intent on her path.

Her destination was a fallen pillar deep within the Grove. It rested at the base of a large tree. Both tree and pillar had been crept over by green and purple moss, untouched for countless seasons, and the stone of the pillar had long been worn smooth from exposure to the elements. The girl sat herself up in a hollow in the pillar where a large chunk of stone was missing and eased her foot out of its boot, turning it in a careful circle to test the sprain.

Alexandra of Haryse grimaced at the twinge of pain. She prodded at the place where her ankle was swelling.

It didn't help.

Removing a small bag from a hidden hollow behind the pillar, Lexa took out her backup shirt and tore a strip from it, binding it carefully about her foot. She tested the makeshift bandage and nodded approvingly at her handiwork; a little cumbersome, perhaps, but the boot fit over it still and the throbbing was minimal and easily ignored.

After taking a moment, checking the contents of the bag haven’t been touched since last she came here, Lexa stood. She made her way to a path; it had been a true path once upon a time and was lined with pretty river-smoothed stones that as the path twisted through the trees. It brought her to a low and rusted gate in the wall.

She stopped there.

Beyond the gate, the path fell away down a steep set of stairs and into the city proper. The noise of celebration was a dull roar even here and Lexa sighed. It had been a good day with regards to her awareness, which sat as little more than a faint pressure behind her eyes, but being amongst so much noise could change that.

Instead of risking that, she made her way to a tall building there on the outskirts. Built at the top of this hill, it was constructed entirely of brick rather than the more common wood and plaster and it overlooked most of the district. Lexa was pretty sure that it belonged to a guild; she had seen guards wandering within and sometimes outside of it and chasing away beggars. But it stood empty now, with everyone having gone to the tournament, and no one questioned her or appeared to see her when she climbed the stairs at the rear of the building up to the roof. Mindful of her twisted ankle, Lexa picked a careful path across the roof and settled behind one of the tall chimneys to claim what little shade it threw. 

The tiles were hot and burned at her through her clothes; there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky to ease the pressing heat. Pulling out a notebook and stick of charcoal from her bag, she picked up where she had left off the day before.

Lexa looked out over the city.

From her place there at the furthest edge of Silverbrush, she could see far out across the sprawling city to the belching chimneys in the Wishbone and across the river to the sluice where the city wall met the river beyond Northbridge, the river churning a sickly grey as it frothed and spilt away through the immense grates. She could see all the way to the city walls by Highfields from here—and beyond them, out the main gates and into the cleared fields where she could just make out the brightly coloured stalls and tents of the festival.

In the centre of it all was a conspicuous cleared space and a pavilion.

Lexa didn't need to see it to know whose flag was raised above it but a familiar discomfort grips her. She reacted instinctively, grabbing onto the rough brick of the chimney next to her; even as she did, she lost feeling in numb fingers as her vision blurred and darted away from her, quick as a bird, over the rooftops to swoop down low over the festival. She could see: see ribbons tied in hair, and the glint of coins passed between hands, the drip of honey from combs crushed in eager child hands and smeared across their faces, curious bees bumbling over jars and gentle hands. She could hear: hear laughter and song and the strain of a familiar song starting up on a fiddle, the barking of a pack of dogs. She could smell: smell the meats and breads and sweetness of plucked berries; and finally, right when she felt herself start to sweat that clammy sweat, her body heavy and unwell, she saw the flags that had been raised over the pavilion. The heavy gleam of blue and silver of the King; the grey and green of Haryse, each stitch of it carefully laid by Mara.

Lexa fell back into her own body.

When she was able to, she crawled to the edge of the roof and puked down into the empty alley below. The faint pressure behind her eyes was a pounding headache then and she tried to ease it with a few sips from her waterskin but ended up doing as she always did: ignoring it.

Lexa slipped a sweet under her tongue and focused on the clean taste spilling into her mouth.

‘I am Lexa,’ she said quietly. She balanced the book on her knees, grounded herself between the weight of the book and the sturdy heat of the tiled roof. The lines of charcoal trembled on the page. ‘I am Lexa of Haryse. I am here on this roof. I am Lexa of Haryse.'

//

Lexa stirred around midday. The day was hot and the honeyed candy had made her thirsty, tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth.

Packing away her maps neatly, she climbed down from the roof and made her way back toward Grove.

Her maps had improved considerably over the season as she practiced, she thought. Even more so since she had returned to Corus. Temple and Hilltop, the first Districts she'd attempted to map, were the least detailed but even such simple maps had still taken her the better part of two days each to put down on paper.

By all measure, they were more drawings than maps, lacking street names and correct dimensions. Octavia would love them, Lexa thought and a pang of guilt shot through her at the thought of her friend; she hoped the Danshame page didn’t think too poorly of her for not writing during the summer. I had a good reason, she told herself, but Octavia’s idea of ‘a good reason’ and Lexa’s own only very rarely overlapped. The guilt turned to nerves in the pit of her stomach and she regarded the notebook. Maybe I can give them these. As a gift.

Wishbone, Highfields, and Patten districts had each improved on her skills and Upmarket had taught her that the best place for her ‘map-making’ was the rooftops, after narrowly escaping a cascade of bath water and a cursing out from a paranoid housekeeper who had thought her some kind of urchin, apparently. Flash and Silverbrush – now complete – were the best of the lot.

All she had left was the Lower City.

Lexa looked out across the city; the rooftops of the Lower City were visible past the distinctive emptiness where the Main Way ran below. Examining the maze of rooftops and chimneys and walkways, Lexa understood why Gus had laughed when she had spoken her intent to map the city.

Lexa returns the bag to its place hidden in the Grove. Making her way back to the townhouse, Lexa lingered in the garden between the Haryse town estate and the Disat estate until she was sure that the foyer was empty.

Compared to the other estates in Silverbrush, the Haryse townhouse was on the smaller side. Inside, however, there was no missing the grandeur of the gleaming black marble floors or the handsome blue glass windows that sent bright light in swathes of blue across the walls opposite. There was no one there—many of the servants had been given the day off to take part in the festival—and Lexa slipped into the large study and library that takes up a good quarter of the ground floor. She headed for the cabinet by the desk to search for more paper for the notebook.

‘You may take as much as you like, provided you go buy the replacement.’

Lexa jumped.

Behind her, at a desk piled high with accounting books, was a woman. Short and stout and attractive in a handsome sort of way, Mireia watched Lexa with a look of such keen interest that it betrayed the fearsome intelligence she typically kept banked.

Lexa's cheeks burned hot. She should have noticed the woman but perhaps she had been relying too much on the awareness that clawed at her at every moment, needling at her when there was so much as a hint of another person around her. The thought made her scowl—she wanted nothing to do with that, that power—and Mireia lifted dark brows.

‘Have I said something, Alexandra?’ she asks in that measured way of hers that Lexa so admired. No matter whether it was word or action, she was matter-of-fact and thoughtful, graceful in her directness. Writing without flourish, conversation without embellishment; it was the same control and command that Lexa admired in sword-fighting.

Forcing her scowl away, Lexa stood. ‘Yes.’

‘What is it?’

‘I can take the paper?’

Mireia smiled. ‘Yes, I did say that. Of course you may—this is your home. Only, I will need more of it as we seem to be running low.’

‘I’ve been using it.’

Mireia’s smile grew. She pointed without standing; Lexa followed the line of her finger to a familiar money pouch sitting on the table, leather with a fine silver trim. ‘Take some money from my purse—two silver ought to be enough. Have Farlie deliver to the house tomorrow whatever you don’t wish to take with you. Does that sound reasonable?’

‘Yes.’

‘Very good.’ Mireia tilted her head to the side. ‘Was there anything else you need?’

Lexa considered the question seriously. ‘Is Gus here?’

‘He isn’t. I believe he has gone to the tournament. Namak will know when he left.’

‘Hm. Thank you’

‘Of course.’ Mireia waited until Lexa had taken the coins before speaking again. ‘Alexandra?' Lexa turned to find the woman watching her with undisguised concern. She leaned forward, toward Lexa. 'I have no wish to intrude upon your business,’

‘Then do not.’

The words came out curter than Lexa had intended them to, but she didn’t attempt to recall them, nor apologise.

It worked, at any rate. Mireia sat back in her seat, averted her eyes. Lexa buried the desire to know what the woman thought, feeling the fluttering in her chest as her awareness prepared to help her understand. She squashed it down deep and stared, unseeing, at Mireia's face as the woman said,

‘Very well. If you require directions to the supplier, Namak can assist you. Good day.’

‘Good day,’ Lexa returned quietly. Her head ached and the unpleasant weight of shame sat in her belly. She ignored that too and went searching for the housekeeper.

Namak was a small man with dark bronze skin and a lean frame. He walked with a pronounced limp and a cane, making no effort to disguise the tool. Rather, he had had the head of the cane carved into the head of a sprinting horse, the mane cascading out behind it, and painted brightly—if not realistically—in a myriad of colours. It would be incredibly noticeable, but Namak decorated himself in the Rajmuat fashion too—that was, colourfully and well patterened—and it was just one piece of many that he bore that fascinated and drew the eye. Lexa wasn’t sure of his age, since there was no sign of grey in his hair, but his face was heavily lined and expressive. Namak’s resemblance to the nasty Master Tern extended as far as the accent they shared and no further.

He also didn’t believe in stopping what he was doing to make an unnerving amount of direct eye contact, which Lexa finds refreshing.

She found Namak in the kitchens making note of everything within the pantry, a board in hand with papers pinned to it. ‘Namak sees you,’ he greeted when Lexa entered the room. ‘What can I do, lady?’

‘Mireia said you would know someone called Farlie. A paper supplier?’

Namak switched pages immediately, pencil barely lifting from the page. In moments, he had a map drawn out for her in regimented lines, which he tore off his page in a neat block. He presented it with a hint of a flourish.

‘Thank you, Namak.’

‘Is she well?’ he asked. ‘She works so hard, she is so very clever.’

Well-used to Namak’s effusive praise of Mireia, Lexa just nodded. She tucked the directions away into her pocket. ‘She’s in the study.’

‘Ah, you see? Still working. Even on a festival day!’

‘So are you.’

Namak paused writing for the first time since she had entered. He blinked, and then grinned, so forcefully the skin about his eyes crinkled up until all that can be seen of his eyes were two brown twinkles. ‘That is very true, lady. I have been inspired—she is an inspiration!’

Lexa blinked. ‘Alright,’ she nodded. ‘Goodbye.’

//

The suppliers fawned and fell over themselves when Lexa introduced herself to them. It was a new and entirely unpleasant experience. The Haryse folk know that there was no Lady without her people; after all, what point was a castle that overlooked nothing? What good were leagues of farmland if she could not till it all herself? And her mother’s people cared even less for nobility, seeing no reason for them at all, so being treated in this manner after so long without it felt rather like being drenched in sweet-oil, heavy and restrictive. 

It made her teeth ache.

Lexa made the order for the paper but took none for herself, wanting nothing more than to be free of that cloying atmosphere. She started off back to the townhouse but before she could hit the main street, the clamour of the crowd—somehow more people were working their way through the city to the tournament—made her turn away, away from the Main Way and instead taking Tattercloth, a street one shy of the main road. The crowd was thinner there but not absent and Lexa pressed close to the buildings to avoid being touched.

She was walking fast, keeping an eye on her surroundings to make sure no one would accidentally run into her, when a flash of white-blonde hair caught her attention, and the flutter of blue cloth.

Surprise and hope struck thought clean out of Lexa’s mind.

‘Clarke?’

The person didn’t stop or slow so Lexa broke into a jog; she ducked under a dripping overhang and slid around a trundling wagon with a loose, squeaking wheel. It filled two-thirds of this narrow street and Lexa apologised breathlessly as she nearly knocked into the man pulling the wagon. Distantly, she heard him swearing but he was already out of her mind—ahead of her, Lexa watched as the blue-cloaked figure tucked their hair under a brown cap. She fixed the clothing in her mind, determined not to lose the other girl.

Clarke?’

The cloaked blonde led her through increasingly narrowed streets, darkening with mud and the shadows from the walkways and awnings above.

So focused on her pursuit was she that Lexa didn’t realise she had found her way deep into the Lower City until she came to a crossroads and there was no sign of either the blonde-haired figure…or anything else that Lexa recognised.

The buildings were squat and low to the ground here. Several inches of what Lexa hoped was mud stained the base of the buildings and sat thick in the gutters where the cobbled road fell away into wooden planks and mostly dirt. With neither name nor number nor signs, the facades all blurred together in seemingly identical wood-and-plaster builds until she couldn't tell them apart. Lexa's breath came fast and she backed up until her spine pressed to a solid wall. The air tasted heavy, stinking of wet dog and mould, and she didn't want to be breathing it, wanted to be out of this place as soon as possible; she forced herself to concentrate, to look again for anything to guide her.

The streets were mostly empty, that much was true. But they were not the same. The street to her left tilted up toward a hill where she could make out passing figures and the clop of hooves, more like goats than horse. What she hadn’t heard before, struck deaf by panic, was the low hum of chatter and business. The clink of glasses and the dull creak of boots on rickety steps, conversations muffled by doors. Lexa found the reminder of humanity comforting and the pounding pressure behind her ears began to ease. Firelight flickered in the slatted windows of the building across from her; Lexa trotted over to get a better look, stood up on a bucket to peer inside. She tried to move the shutters but found them glued in place or otherwise thick with grime to the point where they refused to shift, and so Lexa had to angle herself to see through the slats. The interior looked to be a small inn: a cheerful fire burned against the back wall, casting a smoky amber light over what looked like five or six round tables. An array of half a dozen heads studded the room—two bald, one balding, one half-shaved in the Caynn fashion and blue tattoos swirling over the revealed scalp, one with thick curling black hair and—there. Long blonde hair and a brown cap!

Eagerness building again in her chest, Lexa dropped down from the bucket. Mud splashed up around her boots but she paid it no mind, kicked a slop of it off her toe. She had no more than opened the door when a woman swooped down on her, prickly broom in both hands.

‘Out! No children allowed!’

‘But – ’

Out!’

The woman brandished the broom at her, forcing Lexa to duck. If she had thought for a moment that the woman had eased her blow, she didn’t after it hit the frame of the door with an almighty whack! that rattled the shutters on either side.

‘But I – ’

‘An’ if yer one o’ hers, you can tell that black-eyed mot that I paid already!’ she snarled at Lexa, slamming the door closed in her face. The shutters rattled again. It had to be luck alone that stopped the things from falling out of their frames.

‘Black-eyed mot?’ Lexa repeated quietly, frowning, before she shook it out of her head. Since the woman wouldn’t let her in, she’d have to find another way.

Lexa trotted down the steps and examined the building—two storeys, a staircase built in the alley around the corner that led onto the second floor, small dim windows all along the top floor that made her think it was likely to be an inn. She slipped around to the alleyway and peered up at the dark door, unlit by lantern or candle. Before she could put a foot on the steps, a hand grasped her above the elbow and wrenched her around.

A man—not too much taller than her but heavyset and strong, his waxen face patched with an oiled black beard and his breath spiced heavily with the distinctive hotblood wine—held her firmly, his hand gripping her so tightly that she could feel the blood in her arm pulsing around it. Worse than that, so much worse, was the way the pain flared behind her eyes and she felt—her-his head fuzzy and warm and all the rest of his body hot and bright, quicker and stronger and cleverer than anyone else, no one else caught this bright little bird just him, feel her struggling in his grip, take her back into the dark—and she froze in his grip, staring up into watery green eyes ringed with red, feeling the horrible wave of intent crash against her and over her and through her.

She must have made a sound because the man clamped a meaty hand over her mouth at the same time the wooden door crashed open.

‘I said leav-‘ Lexa heard the woman say as she was pulled behind the staircase and into the alleyway.

‘Pretty little bird,’ he crooned softly in her ear, spiced breath puffing against her cheek.

Lexa’s mind spun. Pain splintered her head and thoughts into pieces as she fought to separate what was her—mostly fear and repulsion—from what was him. His hand was slick with sweat and when she twisted her head, his hand dropped enough for her to clamp teeth down on his finger. Pain—his pain—burst in her mind like a flash of lightning and in the dark, deafened wake of it, clarity returned to her. 

Lexa kicked back into his shin; it made the man yelp but he didn't loosen his grip. She kicked again and pulled at his grip on her arm as he dragged her deeper into the alley. When he slipped on a patch of mud, he growled, frustrated, and pulled her off her feet and closer to him. Lexa began to panic as everything started to swarm in on her again, encroaching on the her; she reached blindly for her dagger, only to realise with a lurch that she wasn't wearing it—hadn't been since she had returned to the city.

‘Stop stop, wait,’ she gasped, and to her surprise, he did.

The man dropped her. Lexa's knees buckled, ankle flaring with sudden pain, and she scrambled to put her back up against the wall. Crouching there, she fumbled in the mud for any kind of weapon, fingers curling around a jagged hunk of rock. Lexa gripped it firmly, never taking her eyes from his—watery green wide with a slow kind of surprise.

Did I do that? she had time to think before she saw a blonde head behind her attacker’s—and the blade they held to the man’s back.

‘Wha-’

‘I don’t think ye need to speak,’ they said, tone very, very cold. The other man yelped as the blade slashed down; Lexa flinched as red sprayed from a neat mark cut into his cheek. ‘Go. 'Fore I cut yer balls off'n feed ‘em to ye.’

The man clutched at his face. Lexa thought then that she would remember this forever—the dark, the cold mud around her knees and fingers, the dark liquid that dripped between his fingers—and like with a certainty like the click of a lock, she knew too that she would never again be without her dagger.

The man moaned, sobbed a self-pitying sob, and hurried away deeper into the alley. Lexa’s rescuer—definitely not Clarke—knelt very slowly. They held their hands wide at their sides and carefully, slowly, sheathed their dagger.

‘Are ye alright?’ they asked.

Lexa stared. She couldn’t answer—her heart still thundered in her chest and the awareness had flared out around her so all she could do was feel everything—except for herself. There was cluster of small creatures beneath the road—rats, her mind supplied, translating that scrabbling hungry interest to a name—and a curiosity that scrubbed like a scouring brush from the direction of the inn. And there in front of her was her rescuer, who felt solid and still like a statue of ice. They bristled icily with cold fury; Lexa could tell it wasn’t directed at her but instead in the direction of the disappearing man. The thought of him made her heart rate pick up again and the blood in her fingers pulsed around the rock she gripped painfully tight in her hand.

She swallowed hard again.

The stranger clicked their tongue. Concern rolled from them like a slow sweeping mist. That was directed at Lexa.

‘Ye’ve had a scare,’ they said quietly. Sweet ice-blue eyes watched her carefully. ‘I nick a good place – safe and warm. Do ye want to go with me? We can find yer way back to yer place, if yer lost.’

It sounded like foolishness after she was so recently nearly murdered—Lexa’s mind flinched away from any other explanations—but for some reason she trusted the stranger, and only in part because they had rescued her. Despite the fact it nearly got her killed, despite the fact that it left a terrible ache in her head, she trusted the feelings she got from her awareness, and she felt nothing sinister from this stranger.

‘I’m Ebbe,’ they told her when Lexa nodded slowly and stood. ‘Eberhard.’

‘Lexa.’

‘Lexa,’ they repeated. Ebbe nodded and stood as well, before bowing a silly kind of bow with far too many flourishes. Their dramatics, and their smile, reminded her of Benny and Lexa relaxed a little more. ‘Well, Lexa, ye want me to take ye some place safer and a whole lot nicer'n this old place? It’s only a leg that way.’ Ebbe pointed up the street and, when she nodded, they gave her a smile that turned their ice-blue eyes warm. Unbuckling the blue cloak they wear, Ebbe draped it around Lexa's shoulders, careful not to touch her. The cloak was pleasantly warm and smelled faintly of soap and sweat, but not in a bad way.

//

The place Ebbe spoke of turned out to be a tavern only a short walk away. It stood on a wide street, clean and set up with a number of small stalls selling flowers and pastries and ribbons for the festival. Folk walked freely about here and now that she had seen this part of the Lower City, Lexa felt foolish that she hadn’t realised how dark and dreary the streets had been where she'd been following Ebbe. And unlike the last one, this tavern looked and smelled sharply of fresh green paint.

A hanging sign over the door read The Roaming Rook.

The Rook stood three storeys tall. A balcony hugged the second floor and as they approached, Lexa could see a stable around the back of the building. The wide door sat open to the tavern and Ebbe led the way in, setting Lexa up at an out-of-the-way table before pushing away through the crowd to get her something to eat and drink ‘to settle yer stomach’.

The interior was large and well-lit; nearly two dozen tables filled the lower floor and Lexa could see that the floor above, half cut out so those on the balconies could look down into the space, held a half dozen more. A musician tuned their instrument in the corner and servers darted through the crowd in matching dark shirts. It was busier than she was expecting, though many of the patrons didn’t stay for too long, talking quietly to someone at a table toward the rear before they left again with a few pastries and a drink.

‘Now, Lexa – how old are ye?’ Ebbe asked when they return, juggling a plate and two tankards. ‘I’ve got barley water an’ I’ve got sweet ale.’

‘Eleven.’

Eleven?’ Ebbe looked sick for a moment, but it passed. ‘Barley water it is.’ They sniffed each of the tankards before handing her one. Lexa sniffed it as well, eyeing Ebbe warily. Ebbe nodded when they saw her do so, seeming to approve of her caution. They settled into a seat next to her and watched the crowd.

It took a little time before Lexa started to feel like herself again. The hum of chatter was soothing and no one was watching her, no eyes pressing against her awareness to make it flare. She was surprised by that, at first, before she realised that in her muck-covered day clothes she didn’t look like a lady at all—just another of the people here. And filthier by far, which drew a few concerned looks but nothing more.

When she felt more settled, she remembered something.

‘Thank you,’ she said abruptly. ‘I should’ve said that before.’

Ebbe waved a hand, dismissing her apology with a smile that put her at ease. ‘No need.’

‘There is – ’

‘There isn’t,’ they told her. ‘Anyone with half a heart woulda done the same. Now drink yer water.’

Lexa sipped obediently. ‘I have coin, I can pay you back for this.’ She huffed when Ebbe waved that away as well. ‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Aye.’

‘What were you doing in that place?’

‘Talkin’. What were you doin’ there?’

Lexa’s face flushed. ‘Following you.’ When Ebbe stirred at that, eyes narrowing to splinters of ice, she hurried to explain herself. ‘I thought you were someone else. She has your hair and I haven’t seen her for a long time, so I followed you. But then I lost you so I tried to go into that inn but the mistress,’ Lexa huffed again, ‘she threw me out and waved a broom in my face – ’

‘Ain’t a place for kids.’

‘You’re not much older than me.’

‘Still older’n you, little mouse. Trust me – only lousy sorts, and them that don’t know any better go to that bhor-hole.’ Ebbe squinted at Lexa like a butcher examining a cut before they said, slowly, ‘Yer likely of th’ latter.’

‘How can you be sure?’

Ebbe pretended to quake with fright at her scowl but neither of them could hold it for long, and Ebbe laughed.

‘Ebbe! What are ye doin’ back already? Thought collections woulda kept ye out ‘til dark–’ The familiar voice broke off and then returned, sharp with shock. ‘Lexa?’

Lexa started, as surprised to see Nate as he seemed to see her.

‘What are you doing here?’ he hissed. Coming round the table as though to sit with her, he stopped, the glint of steel pressing his shirt to his ribcage. Ebbe had barely seemed to move but there they stood, between Nate and Lexa. ‘Whoa there, Ebbe,’ Nate soothed, voice low. His posture was surprisingly relaxed for someone with a knife pressed up into the soft of their gut. It was well-placed, Lexa saw. With a little pressure, it would slide between Nate's ribs and find something vital very easily. ‘It’s fine—I know the lass. Lexa?’

Ebbe turned slightly; Lexa nodded, and their rescuer slipped the blade back into some hidden sheathe, quick as a wink.

‘Nate. Good to see ye,’ Ebbe said without so much as a mention of the knife, let alone an apology.

‘Same here. Bit surprised t’ see y’all together, though. Didn’t know ye knew her.’ Lexa saw Ebbe throw a look over her head to Nate, who must have caught it because he frowned and leaned into his friend, waved close; Ebbe speaks quietly, lips hardly moving, and Nate's face goes ashen and then dark with anger. It is then that Lexa realised what Ebbe was telling him and she sunk low in her seat. 'What?' Nate hissed. ‘I run into him, I’ll cut him navel to nu- neck. He's a dead man.'

Ebbe nodded.

‘I’m fine,’ Lexa told Nate. She twisted her fingers into knots below the table where neither could see. ‘He didn’t kill me, so I don’t think you can kill him without going to the cages.’

Nate’s eyes glinted. ‘Maybe not.’ The air between them grew heavy for a moment before Nate sucked in a deep breath and, with a wave of his hand, dismissed the topic. He smiled to her, a crooked grin. ‘As it is, lass, mayhap a little less o’ the whole killin’ folk talk while we’re in public.’

Lexa nodded solemnly. ‘Later, then,’ she said, making them both laugh.

Silence sat heavily over their table for a short time; Nate took a seat with them and didn’t seem to know what to say to her, which Lexa found strange because he had always been talkative and clever when she met him at the palace. Ebbe went for more food, taking the coins Nate gave them, and finally they began to talk. The conversation turned to common things, like the festival and the weather. With a drink in him, Nate seemed to relax and he introduced Lexa to a few more of his friends he waved over—a set of Bazhir twins, the impressively muscled Gamal and his sister Khadiga, equally muscled and standing a much-argued half-inch taller; Roshan, the musician Lexa had spied earlier in the tavern, who spoke with such a silky sweet voice that Lexa felt herself flush hot under their dark eyes; Suman, a K’mir trader much older than the rest but well greeted on account of her many stories—all of which were apparently too gory to tell with such little ears present, and she tweaked Lexa’s ear with a broad grin when Lexa grumbled; and Vieno, a woman who made both Ebbe and Nate swoon, her light eyes and temper like ‘a storm’ according to Nate. ‘She’ll work ye over right quick,’ Ebbe added to Nate’s description, and both of them sighed adoringly when she left them.

Still more folk passed by their table over the next hour, buying and trading drinks and snippets of conversation. Lexa was far from stupid and it became rapidly apparent that not everything discussed was entirely legal but, tucked between Nate and Ebbe, she felt safe and warm and comfortable and no one asked her for anything more than her name.

Ebbe slipped out when the sky darkened but only after extracting Nate’s promise to walk Lexa home safe. The tavern started to pick up not long after they left with those who had gone to the tournament returning to drink, and to celebrate and mourn coin won and lost.

Suman took Ebbe’s place and, after learning that Lexa didn’t know how to play Seven Card Draw, promptly ignored her.

The room soon became very hot as the tavern grew packed, and Lexa realised that she still wears Ebbe’s cloak. She tapped Nate’s shoulder to tell him.

‘They’re here plenty,’ Nate told her, his face flushed and his voice a touch too loud. ‘Don’t ye worry – I’ll get it back to ‘em for ye.’ Lexa accepted that and folded the cloak in her lap, hugging it to her belly as she made herself mostly invisible, content to listen.

Turning away from a discussion on which of the butchers on Bloody Row is the least likely to give an underweight cut, Lexa overheared Nate speaking to a dark-cloaked man who had, at some point in the night, appeared in the seat next to him. His raised hood hid his features more thoroughly than shadows ought to and the only feature that set him apart from anyone else was the white rope of a scar as thick as Lexa’s thumb that runs across the back of his hand, tanned and bristling with dark hair.

‘ – haven’t found anyone who can help. But there’s always Bergin, o’course,’ Nate said and he laughed, slopped his drink over his hand with a wide gesture.

‘Can’t trust Bergin as far as I can throw ‘im. After the last one, I’m thinkin’ we can’t let ‘em anywhere near th’ Rook. Oughta be shy o’ any strangers, that’s what I reckon.’ The cloaked stranger spoke in hoarse strains that sent a shiver down Lexa’s spine.

‘Alrigh’, alrigh’, Loughlin, no harm. Yer right – we gotta be careful,’ Nate agreed easily.

The man—Loughlin—nodded. Suddenly, his head shifted ever so slightly and Lexa started, knowing without seeing that his eyes were fixed on her.

‘Need somethin’, lass?’ he asked. His voice slid to her ears like a snake through dry fall leaves. 

Lexa shook her head mutely.

‘Kid!’ Nate said cheerily, seemingly having forgotten her. ‘Why don’t ye get me anuther drink?’ Nate passed over a few coppers happily. ‘Maren dredge ale for me.’ He barely twitched when Loughlin flicked a heavy silver Lexa’s way.

‘For me as well,’ he said.

Lexa could feel his eyes on her until she squeezed into the crush of the crowd. It was growing unpleasant—the space smelled of meat and sweat and everyone called over each other too-loud from drink—but even that was better than sitting next to Loughlin. The barkeeper was a no-nonsense woman who looked like she’s bitten into a sour fruit when Lexa asked for the two ales; she was miraculously cured of her reluctance when Lexa mentioned who they were for and even sent a kitchen boy to carry the large tankards to the table.

The barkeep held off taking the coppers for a moment. ‘Got a place fer tonight?’ she grunted. When Lexa didn’t answer immediately, the barkeep nodded back over her shoulder to the kitchen. ‘Ye can camp by the fire, if ye need a place. Got a few others bunkin’ there tonight but it oughta be cosy.’

‘Others?’

‘Other kids,’ a soft voice said at Lexa’s side.

Lexa flinched away, hand falling to her side for the second time that night. Her hand curled into a fist at the empty space on her belt and she cursed herself for a fool a second time that she had forgotten her knife. The girl didn’t miss the gesture, dark eyes flicking to Lexa’s fallen hand; she also didn’t mock her for the reaction. Lexa thought for a moment that she might have been—her nearly black eyes were bright with mischief and a hidden laugh curled up the corners of her lips—but since her eyes brightened as they continue to speak and the edge of laughter never dropped away, Lexa suspected that it wasn’t directed at her, but that the girl rather was in a good humour. 

The girl was older than Lexa but not by much—seventeen years, Lexa would guess, twenty at the most—and lithe. Compact, with wiry muscles, and with an odd way of standing on the balls of her feet like she was about to start dancing, or fighting, or take flight. Her skin was golden-brown and Lexa’s eyes dipped to where delicate feathered tattoos peeked out from the open collar of her shirt.

‘Other kids?’ Lexa asked, regaining her composure.

‘Yeah, that's right.' The girl cocked her head curiously to the side. ‘You didn’t think you were th’ only houseless lass in Corus, did you?’

Behind them, the barkeep drew the sign of the Mother into the countertop with a drop of spilled wine. ‘Too many of ‘em,’ she sighed, mournful.

The girl nodded. ‘Very true.’ Dark eyes returned to Lexa, appraising. ‘Well? Normal rules if you stay – no stealing from the others, or the house. No fighting inside and if you take it outside, you can’t come back in. Well?’

‘Thank you for the offer,’ Lexa said, ‘but I do have a home and a family.’

The barkeep cracked a tankard down on the counter sharply; Lexa jumped, glancing up into a suddenly forbidding face. ‘And yer here?' the barkeep demanded. 'Lettin’ ‘em worry about ye? For shame, lass!’

Lexa’s cheeks burned. She wondered if Gustus were home yet and, if so, if he was concerned about her.

She suspects he would be.

‘Ye get home safe now, hear me?’ the barkeep told her, frowning hard to impress the command on Lexa before she stomped down the bar to serve more drinks.

‘Do you like them?’

Lexa turned back to the girl who hadn’t left, nor let up her examination of Lexa. ‘Pardon?’

‘Your family,’ she said with a laugh. ‘Do you like them?' She cocked her head to the other side, gave a strange shrug more like her shoulder blades lifting than her shoulders. 'Only, I get the feeling you’d suit us here very well.’

‘I’m certain,’ Lexa told her.

‘A pity.’

Feeling quite unlike herself—or perhaps the girl’s amusement was infectious—Lexa joked, ‘If they die, or I find I don't like them one bit, I’ll come back to you, shall I?’

The girl grinned, perfect white teeth flashing. ‘You do that.’ Holding out her hand—surprising fine, delicately boned—she shook Lexa's hand. Her grip was surprisingly strong; she held it gently but something told Lexa that the hand could close like a vice. She glanced up, wary, and found the girl still watching her with steady eyes. ‘Ask for Reyes.’

Lexa repeated the name to herself and nodded. ‘I’m Lexa.’ She hesitated then.

Reyes winked. ‘Don’t worry. No need to tell me – I like a mystery. You're interesting, little Lexa,' she said, holding onto Lexa's hand a moment longer before she let it drop. ' Visit any time, even if they aren’t dead,’ she said as though granting permission, and slipped past Lexa toward the back of the room, disappearing into the crowd.

Lexa resigned herself to feeling confused about that entire conversation and this new world she had found herself in. When she returned to the table, Loughlin is gone.

‘Did ye use his silver?’ Nate asked her. 

Lexa shook her head no. She handed over the coin when Nate held out his hand.

‘Time fer us to be leavin’,’ he said a little while later, seeing the lamp-lighters starting to walk the streets. He stood, staggering a little, and waved to the crowded table.

‘Aw, already?’

‘Gotta get the little lass home.’ Nate clapped Lexa on the shoulder. The currents of conversation washed together in a tumult of boos and laughter, farewells and goodnights thrown toward the pair.

‘Come back any time!’

‘Nice to meet ya!’

‘Later, Nate. Ah’ll teach ye Seven Cards next time, lass,’ Suman promised Lexa.

Lexa nodded. She meant to answer the woman but was distracted by a flash of silver dropping from Nate’s palm as he passed it slyly over an abandoned tankard She followed him out of the tavern, turning over the strange events of the night in her mind. Nate didn’t seem to notice her quiet, walking with a rolling stride and a loose set to his shoulders. Lexa found herself mimicking his gait. They walked for a short time without speaking and Lexa found the threads of it all escaping her as exhaustion pulled her bones down toward the ground, aching to rest, to sleep. One question in particular seemed pressing above all others and she gripped that thought tight, even as the others fled.

‘Nate?’

He tilted his head sloppily toward her. ‘Aye?’

‘Why are you pretending to be drunk?’

‘…How long did ye know?’

She shrugged. ‘A while.’

Nate frowned. Scratched at the side of his nose. ‘Clever girl,’ he said like he was reminding himself of the fact. ‘Well. Let’s just say that I trust ‘most everyone who comes by The Rook.’ He turned to look down at her and raised dark brows, fixed her with a steady gaze. ‘There are some folk ye was drinkin’ with tonight I don’t want ye ever to run into again – ye understand?’

‘Yes.’

‘Alright then.’

‘Who are they?’

‘Don’t worry about it.’

‘How am I supposed to avoid them if I don’t know who they are?’

‘By not coming down here.’

She didn’t like that answer much but his shoulders had lifted high around his ears, which she knew from Octavia’s badgering of Virgil that meant he wasn't pleased by the questions.

They continued on in silence for a time. Then, ‘How did your race go? Did you win?’

Nate’s expression soured briefly before smoothing out. ‘Nah. Came second.’

‘Oh. I’m sorry.’

‘S’fine,’ he shrugged. ‘Got a new job, though.’ Nate threw his thumb back over his shoulder the way they had come. ‘I work at The Rook now. Lower City ain’t always a safe place, ‘specially for a lady.’ Lexa thought about the man who had grabbed her and she nodded. ‘But if ye do find yerself down here again,’ he continued, eyeing her like he knew she hadn’t planned on staying away, ‘ye can always send for me there. Or come yerself, even if ah’m not there. They seemed to like ye well enough,’ he admitted slowly, sounding surprised.

‘I’m likeable.’

Nate laughed. ‘That ye are, miss.’

As they walked to the Main Way and up toward Silverbrush, Lexa told him about her week mapping Corus. Nate asked questions and gave suggestions about parts of the Lower City to definitely avoid—‘Where ye were tonight, where Ebbe found you, fer example,’ he warned with a lidded half-glare, not directed at Lexa—before he suggested he could show her around.

Lexa considered his offer, which was very nice of him because she was certain now that he had better things to do than entertain a child. Still, she was a Haryse and wasn’t one to let a good opportunity pass her by. ‘You do know it well…’

‘Been there fer years.’

‘And the people seem to like you,’

‘Addled, poor cads,’ he said with a sad sigh.

‘And if you’re willing to sit around while I draw,’

‘Sleepin’ on the job? That’s my kind of work.’

‘And you truly don’t mind if I come around?’

‘Yer welcome any time,’ he assured her, resigned to it now.

‘I may take you up on your offer, Mister Nate,’ she told him and when he made her shake on it as solemnly as any truce made, Lexa laughed. The sound surprised her; she hadn’t wanted to laugh for some weeks now. Some small frozen piece of her, buried deep inside where she barely noticed it, cracked at the sound and began its long thaw.

‘This is where we part, Lady,’ he told her, and Lexa realised with a start that they had reached the Haryse townhouse through a series of back roads and passages she hadn’t known existed, emptying them out by the back gate. ‘Don’t make me wait too long 'fore I see you.’


Lexa’s room was easily twice as large as the one she has—might have—up in the Palace. The bed was wide and the blanket thick and heavy and dyed a deep emerald green. She clutched it tight in her hands, dozing fitfully. Moonlight shone across the room through the long windows, poured over the bed, the neatly packed chest at the end of it, over the burned down stumps of candles on her bedside with one still lit, the only other source of light here. The bedroom door stood open just wide enough for a man to enter,

She hadn’t been asleep long before there was movement at the foot of her bed. Lexa pulled the dagger from under her pillow and brandished it, blinking sleep from of her eyes. In the light of her candle, she saw the intruder’s face.

Gus,’ she groaned. Flopped back down onto her bed. ‘Why are you in my room?’

‘With you sneakin’ out before dawn, I reckon I gotta be sneaky to catch you.’ He took a seat on the chair by her bed. The wood creaked under his weight. ‘I want ye to read somethin’.’

‘Can’t it wait for morning?’

‘Are ye tired?’ he asked with false concern. ‘Mayhap ye shouldn’t stay out until dark either.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Namak said ye came back near to midnight reeking of the Lower City.’

‘That’s impossible. He can’t smell a District on me.’

The dark and the flickering light of the candle caught in the deep lines of Gus's frown. He glowered at her, dark eyes reflecting a spark of the candlelight. ‘Were you alone down there?’

‘No.’

‘But ye were in the Lower City.’

Lexa scowled. ‘I hate it when you trick me.’

‘I hate it when ye take yerself off into danger,’ he countered, and there was a true undercurrent of unease in his tone that she suspected has more to do with the events of the summer camp—better left forgotten—than tonight’s adventure into the Lower City.

She decided to keep news of the man and his attack from him, not needing to know what Gus would do to him.

‘Is there – ‘ she stopped, yawned so wide her jaw clicked. ‘Is there a reason you’re in my room? Or just to keep me from sneaking out?’

‘Both,’ Gus grunted. He tossed something to her, and it smacked light on her belly, sliding off to the side. She reached for it instinctively to catch it; paper dragged smooth under her fingers and she could smell the lingering scent of pine. From the weight of it, it had to be the good stock, which could only have come from her father's study. Lexa froze, eyeing the letter as she would a venomous creature. ‘Read it.’

‘I’d rather not,’ she said, and hated the way her voice emerged: breathless, uncertain.

‘Lexa.’ Wood creaked again as Gus leaned forward. He was careful to move slowly, and his eyes were suspiciously glossy when she didn’t flinch away from the hand he put over hers. ‘Would I give ye somethin’ that would hurt ye?’

‘…No,’ she whispered.

‘No. Read th’ letter.’

Sitting up fully in her bed, Lexa opened the package with shaking fingers. Gus touched the burning candle to the wicks of a few others so she had light enough to read by. Shuffling to the edge of the bed, Lexa shivered. Not from cold—not with the summer heat still thick about the room, and her blanket kicked to the foot of her bed now that she was free of the chill touch of a nightmare—but from the instant recognition of her name on the page.

It was writ in her fathers hand.

‘I don’t – I don’t know if I can read this,’ Lexa confessed to Gus, very quietly. Even as she said it, she lifted the page to see the short letter he had penned. It was short, painfully so, and his words so forceful they nearly cut through the page.

She read through it twice more. ‘He’s letting me return,’ she told Gus, though he almost certainly already knew that.

Gus nodded. Cleared his throat. ‘I thought you’d be happier.’

Lexa stared down at the paper. Shrugged. ‘I wasn’t going to let it stop me,’ she told him. ‘I just hadn’t figured out how to do it without his permission yet. This helps.’

She looked up in time to see Gus’s face crease in a fond, resigned smile. ‘I reckon ye could have – but lets not put it to the test.’

‘Agreed.’

She looks over her father’s letter to Lord Padraig—simple, direct, clean. There were no hidden commands or instructions that she could tell. Content that she had gleaned all she could from it, she folded it up neatly and set it on her table to take to the Palace the next morning before her father could change his mind. The accompanying letter, from her father to her eyes alone, she folded up small and slipped into her pouch. 

//

Alexandra,

I have given my permission for you to return to your training. Enclosed is a letter with the same information for Lord Padraig – see to it that he receives it. I will have much business with his Majesty, the King, in the coming months and will be staying in the Haryse townhouse for the foreseeable future. I look forward to meeting with you soon.

We have much to discuss.

Your father,
Titus.