There is a monster trapped inside me. Except when it slips free. (Except when I unleash it.) And then I am the monster, and it’s the boy who is trapped.
Quade Asher fixed upon these few lines. Merely ink on paper, and yet so much more. Beyond his tent the military camp hummed with activity, but Quade had slipped into the troubling landscape of memory. These words, written at the age of twelve, rekindled an old, dull pain. Sympathy for the boy he’d been.
How hard he’d worked then, to strike a balance between his two selves: the part of him that hungered for blood, and the part that yearned for approval.
Quade grazed the page with tender fingertips, his musings bittersweet. He’d forgotten how torn he once felt. His gift would later eliminate this contradiction—this internal tug-of-war.
How strange, how oddly affecting, to relive his earliest fears. He bent over his childhood diary and read on:
Mother can’t see it. Father chooses not to. But Ellora…
Ellora sees only the beast, never the boy. This morning at breakfast, she wouldn’t look up, not even when I spoke to her. I grabbed her wrist, and she cringed at my touch. I held on, tight enough to hurt her, and she finally looked at me (which was all I really wanted) but her eyes made me feel so…small. And the monster inside me roared.
I swear, I could rip the heart from my body. Slap it, bloody and beating, into her hand. And my sister would still think me born heartless.
Quade clicked his teeth together. Ellora. The mere thought of her stung. His sister had always regarded him as something nasty, a bug skittering across the wall of her life. How he’d longed to wipe that disdain from her face. It was the desperate cry of his boyhood spirit: love me, kiss me, fear me, hate me, hold me. Look at me. See me.
He’d gotten his wish, eventually. He had compelled her to do and say all the things he’d ever wanted, and then—when it still did not satisfy, and that lack of satisfaction festered inside him—he’d stolen the one thing she did love. Her art.
Quade didn’t care to recall that episode with Ellora, or how empty it had been. Regret was not a flavor his palate recognized, but perhaps… Perhaps…
He rubbed his face and slumped back in his chair. This project taxed his spirit. It was like an acrid scent he couldn’t stop sniffing, returning for more even as his eyes watered. He scanned his work: on one side his original journals, on the other his revisions. An improved history, worthy of the mythos he was crafting around himself.
A legacy demands careful cultivation.
This page, however, was too full of ugly truth. It didn’t belong in his legend. He ripped it clean from the book, held it over the flame of his lantern, and watched the paper burn in his hand. The smoldering remnants fluttered into the waste bin, where it joined the ashes of other such unsavory memories.
Enough personal history for one day; his mood was already sour. So, he locked up his work and strode out of his tent, out into the war he’d created.
The evening was warm, smoky, and weighted as a held breath. A contingent of soldiers parted before Quade, scuttling from his path like roaches fleeing the light.
“Carry on, gentlemen,” Quade said. The words were spoken with scorn, but his gift transformed them. His voice sounded pleasant, and he knew his sneer would look like a kindly smile to these little men.
“Yes, sir!” they replied in unison. As he passed by, chests inflated and backs straightened. He could bolster and inspire even while dispensing insults. If only he could improve his own spirits so readily…
Quade marched on, hand resting on the pommel of Treeblade at his hip. The camp had doubled in size since their initial debarkation, now sprawling all the way to the marshes. It might appear an unwieldy beast, this multitude of men, most of whom were common and uneducated. But it was not unwieldy.
Surveying these hills crowded with tents and cook fires, he thought his soldiers more akin to ants than roaches. Upon arrival, every man fell into step, merging seamlessly as discrete units joined into a complex whole. Even Quade himself was surprised by the extent and exactness of his own compulsion.
Accord towered before him, its grey stones washed white with sunlight. Quade squinted up at the shadows of men upon those ramparts. He clamped his jaw.
It was unacceptable that he was yet standing on this side of the wall—after two hundred and fifteen days, no less. Every time he thought about it, his rage burned hot enough to brand him. He would love nothing more than to whip the scimitar from his back, to hack viciously at any living spirit in his vicinity. Hack until he was awash in fresh blood and licking it from his lips.
But, like the boy three decades ago who’d written in a kidskin diary, he kept his monster leashed. Such needless violence would be wasteful. Beneath him. He exhaled a long breath and turned away from the wall.
A young Dalishman sprinted to his side and pushed dark brown curls from his eyes. “General Paeva sent me, sir.” His hesitancy was message enough.
“The news is bad, I take it,” Quade said through a tight jaw.
“The scheme was unsuccessful, yes. They were waiting for us before we arrived.”
“And the explosives?”
“Taken, I’m afraid, sir. They flew right up over the wall.”
Quade snarled. His enemies would never cease humiliating him. Spirits, how he would make them suffer for it. Clea, one of his Elevated, whom he’d purposefully crafted into a telekinetic, now snatched his weapons with a flick of her wrist. They were laughing at him, across that wall. They thought him a fool. He had never in his life known such mortification.
But it was not Clea who was the true problem. He could not lay these months of failure at her feet. No, the thorn in his side bore the name of Yarrow Lamhart, the Fifth who predicted his every move.
Thoughts of that man always set Quade’s pulse thrumming. He couldn’t help himself. Desire had consumed him, in dreams and waking moments alike. Quade had always felt drawn to Lamhart. The man had an old spirit, with a mind both bright and artful. To have such a tool at his disposal would have been most pleasing.
But now that Lamhart was a Fifth, a sacred vessel of truth, want had evolved into need. When it came to that man, his feelings were such a spectacular muddle: bitter anger and pragmatic interest; arousal and vicious intent; and above all else want, want, want.
And Quade deserved to have the things he wanted.
The messenger cleared his throat, tearing Quade from his introspection. He looked the lad up and down. His hair was similar to Lamhart’s, and his shoulders were about the same breadth, though he lacked both sufficient height and intelligence of expression. Quade bit down on his lower lip. He will do.
“Would you like me to carry a message back to the general, sir?”
“No. I have need of you. Accompany me.”
Quade turned his back upon that hateful wall and the enemies beyond it, storming towards his tent. He heard the young messenger trailing behind him, and experienced a shiver of anticipation. If his every plan was to be futile from conception, if he was to be laughed at and scorned and denied the objects of his desire—well then, by all the Spirits, he would take his pleasures where he could.
He would unleash the monster.
“After you,” he said, extending his hand. The boy walked into the shadows, blithe as could be.
Some time later, Quade finished re-buttoning his shirt and sat down at his desk. He leaned into his chair and cleaned the blood from beneath his fingernails. The messenger whimpered on the ground. It was an irritating sound.
Most people existed without function or purpose; it should gratify the young man that Quade had found a use for him, however undignified.
The lad sniveled as he righted his clothes. “Shou-should I go?”
Quade wished for solitude, but he made himself face the messenger. He summoned deliberate charm and let it ooze from his eyes. His gift served him well without effort, but the will to please doubled his efficacy. “You enjoyed yourself, did you not?”
The lad hiccupped. “Yes,” he said, but too slowly.
“It is nothing to be ashamed of, finding enjoyment in such things.”
“I’m not ashamed.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I thought we shared something special. It would wound me if you did not feel the same.”
Quade’s smile turned wicked, but the lad only flushed like a besotted youth. “Good night, then. I trust you won’t speak of this to others.”
“Of course I won’t.” He scrambled up from the floor and bowed. “Good night, sir.”
The lad slipped from the tent, and Quade set aside his now-clean dagger. He dipped his head to the side, stretching the taut muscles in his neck.
He sighed. Anyone in this camp would happily knead his sore neck, but it had been Vendra’s keen fingers that had always cured his pain. He wished she hadn’t made him kill her.
But Quade had more pressing matters than tight muscles to consider. His most recent effort to penetrate the city had failed. He seemed to be moving in circles, making the same blunders again and again.
With Lamhart anticipating his tactics, his careful plans were all destined to fail. He needed to change the paradigm. To reconsider his strategy.
Perhaps he might find a way to use their Fifth against them…
* * * * * * * *
Bray slipped onto the balcony and leaned against the stone parapet, letting the breeze kiss her cheeks. The day was not so dreadfully hot—she hoped the extreme summer heat was now behind them—but Yarrow’s room was stifling. She inhaled the fresh air and willed the habitual tightness in her chest to ease.
The Fifth’s chamber occupied the top of the eastern tower, high above the world. Glancing over the balcony railing gave her the sense of a long, fatal plunge. But she looked anyway.
Below, the palace gardens sprawled, sun-bright and dotted with the wide-brimmed hats of workers as they collected produce. She hoped this meant dinner would involve some vegetable other than a potato.
Behind her, back within the chamber, water sloshed against the tub. She could just pick out the steady, monotonous drone of Yarrow’s predictions. She closed her eyes and listened; not to the words themselves—which were likely nonsense—nor to the flat, emotionless tone in which he spoke. Rather, she listened to the timbre of his speech, to the rich quality of voice that was distinctly his.
Her mind wandered into the pleasant escape of memory, summoning the most delicious things that voice had ever said to her.
She imagined him in the black tuxedo he’d worn to that ill-fated ball, descending a stair with confident strides, reacting to the sight of her in a gown: “Putting a beautiful thing in a fancy wrapper can’t improve it.” She saw him tired and weak, but with eyes glinting wickedly. “Prepare to be made love to…in this very creepy bed.”
There came a clang, and Bray jolted. “No, get him under the armpit,” one of the caretakers said, voice drifting through the open window.
A great splash sounded as Yarrow was pulled from his bath. Water spattered the stone floor. She screwed her eyes closed, clinging to the past for a moment longer. The Yarrow in her memory was so sharply drawn; she could recall things he’d said with uncanny precision. As if she’d been storing him up in anticipation of this fate.
In her mind, they were aboard a ship, crossing to Adourra, and he was smiling blissfully. “A very happy New Year. Could we try that again?” Her memory flitted backwards. They lay entwined near the Painted Mere, the sound of lapping water and the trill of cicadas in the air, and he whispered, “I loved you from the first. You and you alone.”
“Before you put his smallclothes on, we need to apply more ointment on that bedsore. Here, hold him up a second.”
Bray’s eyelids drifted open, and she released a shuddering sigh. She shook her head in self-reproach, knowing she must spend less time within her own mind. These memories—they would not bring him back.
She turned away from the balcony and re-entered the chamber. As ever, a wide collection of people filled the room: five Chisanta on guard, ten soldiers, one scribe, and two caretakers. Ko-Jin was wise to keep him so protected, but Bray wished that once in a while she might have a moment alone with him.
He’s not really here, she reminded herself sternly. So it doesn’t matter.
The attendants hauled Yarrow from the bathing area, settling him into his chair by the window. His head slumped onto his chest, and the caretaker Klaeve—a bear of a man, who had a gentle touch—eased his head into a more comfortable position. The caretaker’s sharp eyes flicked to Bray in question.
“Yes, I’ll take care of it.”
He nodded. “After we feed him lunch, we’ll do muscle massage and flexing.”
“How’s his muscle retention?”
“Surprisingly good, given six months in this vegetative state.”
Seven months, Bray silently corrected. She was not likely to miscount—that day was like the dawning of a new epoch. She thought of her life in terms of before and after.
Bray tried to smile, but her lips wouldn’t cooperate. “I’m grateful for the quality of care you’ve given him.”
Klaeve waved her gratitude away with one of his giant hands. “The man saves the city on a daily basis. He deserves the best care.” He bowed to her and backed away. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
Bray slipped on thin gloves and approached Yarrow. His light gray eyes gazed sightlessly at the ceiling. Though Klaeve might find Yarrow’s muscle retention surprisingly good, to Bray he appeared diminished. He had always been slim, but he had never looked weak.
Now, with all his bones sitting closer to the surface, his face had taken on a skeletal aspect. Shadows clung to the hollows of his cheeks and within his eye sockets. His angular jaw was hidden beneath a patchy beard.
He was beautiful, still. But it hurt to look at him.
Bray brought her mouth close to his ear and whispered, “Good morning, Yarrow.” He smelt of soap, and his skin was pebbled as if with cold.
“No sound beyond the atmosphere,” he answered.
The scribe’s pen scribbled against paper.
“Good morning, Raella,” Bray said to the woman. She was one of six scribes assigned to Yarrow, but Bray seemed to visit most often when she was on duty. A fact which the woman plainly resented.
“Morning, Mistress Chiona,” Raella murmured, eyes still on her work.
Bray glided to the back of Yarrow’s chair. She plucked a towel from the nearby cart and began to blot the wetness from his hair. Then she ran her fingers through his dark locks, detangling in orderly sections.
Ko-Jin had taught her how to braid hair in the Cosanta way, at her request. It had bothered her to see Yarrow’s hair left loose. He might no longer know the difference, but it mattered to her because it would have mattered to him.
Once his hair was free of snarls, she wove the damp tresses with well-practiced fingers. “Your brother Allon sent me a telegram last night,” Bray told him.
“Ever approaching zero, never arriving,” he said.
“It seems you have two new nephews. Your brother Rendal’s wife gave birth the day before yesterday. Twin boys. They named one of them Yarrow.”
“Sorrow,” Yarrow said. “Wistful sorrow, nostalgia, sorrow, love.”
Bray swallowed at the lump in her throat and tied off his braid. Raella raised her brows, her expression pinched with annoyance. “Yes, I know,” Bray said. “I’ll go now.”
She brought her lips to his ear, near but not quite touching, “Yes, Yarrow. Yes.”
She bowed goodbye to Klaeve, waved to her fellow Chisanta, and marched towards the door, hot-eyed and throat aching.
It was always hard to walk away from him. The passing months, the mounting distance, had done little to ease her heartache. Time had only normalized the pain.
It was a simple truth that Bray could not run from, could not blunt or blur: she loved Yarrow Lamhart. She loved him wholly, chronically, no matter her state or his.
She had loved him as an uncertain boy, when she was a wounded girl wearing a brave face. She had loved him when her heart was guarded and he seemed an enemy. She had loved him—not more so, only more openly—as her defenses came down, and her spirit learned to heal. Even when he had not known himself, when he was lost and she was terrified that he might no longer return her regard, she had loved him, she had loved him.
And still now—now that she was a storm of rage and grief, now that he was gone and yet still here—oh, how terribly she loved him.
Because she was always Bray. And he was always Yarrow. And there was just no helping the matter.
Bray bit down on her lip and tasted blood, focusing on this simpler pain. She was so distracted that she collided with Peer, who was entering the room as she exited it. He caught her by the shoulders to save her from a fall. “Whoa,” he said. “Where you heading? I brought us lunch.”
“Good, let’s have it on the grounds. I have to clear out of here.”
Peer glanced at Yarrow, his mouth drawing tight. “He chantin’ your feelings again?”
“Yes. And I’d hate for us to miss something important because he’s stuck on a loop about how sad I am.”
Peer squeezed her shoulder, and he eased the door shut behind them. They marched down the gleaming hallway. “Want to talk about it?”
“No,” she said, too sharply. “What’ve you brought us for lunch?”
“A hunk of the finest dried cod and a half-ration of baked potato.”
Bray groaned. After months of siege, she should be grateful there were still provisions. But what she would not give for something edible in a color other than beige…
Peer snickered. “You sound like Whythe. All of his sleep-talkin’ lately’s been about food.”
Bray pushed through the door, spilling out onto the warm grounds. She glanced up at Peer. He wore the same sunny, unconscious grin that always crossed his face when he mentioned Whythe. Bray had known Peer for his entire adult life, and she had never seen him so happy, so at ease. She was pleased for him, and thought Whythe a lucky man, but Peer’s joy was like a light shone onto the darkness of her own spirit. Its rays failed to penetrate her gloom.
Worse, he seemed to sense this. He tucked his smile away, and she frowned at her feet. What kind of friend am I?
Peer set their path up a grassy slope, and they settled down in the shade of an oak tree. Bray slumped beside him. She ran her hand over the lush green grass and thought of Yarrow. “I’ve never felt grass before…”
Further down the hill, a unit of Ko-Jin’s elite swordsmen trained. After a quick scan, Bray spotted Ko-Jin himself. He was watching the queen spar, his hands clasped behind his back. He cut an impressive figure in the bright sunlight; she wondered when he had learned to hold himself with such authority. Arlow Bowlerham stood at his side, gesturing emphatically as he spoke.
Peer unwrapped their meager lunch from a linen napkin, and Bray chomped into the shriveled half of a potato. It turned to glue in her mouth, and with her attention on the flying blades below, she forgot to swallow for a time.
A messenger sprinted from around the side of the building, charging towards the general. Bray followed the young man with her eyes.
“Looks like Yarrow’s predicted another move of Quade’s,” Peer said, nodding to the youth.
“Yes, it does.”
Bray wondered how many times Yarrow would have to save the city before she would think his sacrifice a reasonable trade. Likely, that point would never come. She was a selfish creature. She would have him back, were the world to burn for it.
“Wonder if he knew, afore he made the choice, how attuned he’d be to Quade.”
Bray had also wondered this. When Yarrow’s prophecies were about anything other than this war, they were vague and inscrutable. But when he delivered information about Quade’s agenda, he always did so clearly, with specific details of time and location. She supposed this must be due to the need that had compelled the sacrifice. He had given his mind to thwart Quade, and thwart Quade he would continue to do.
“If anyone could have known, it would’ve been him.” She said this lightly, but she didn’t fool Peer. She felt the air curdle between them, as it so often did of late. His role in Yarrow’s sacrifice was something she had not wholly forgiven, nor his actions in the days that followed.
Peer cleared his throat and shifted his weight. “We’re headin’ across the wall again tonight.”
Bray replied with a grunt.
She glanced sideways at him, but his expression was unreadable. “I’m assuming I’d be the only bevolder-less member of the party?”
He shrugged in concession. “You aren’t bevolder-less, though.”
“Right, but my spirit-mate isn’t exactly in a condition to watch my back.”
“You don’t really need someone watching your back, though, aye? You’re the Amazing Intangible Woman.”
She snorted at this Adearre-ism, but she shook her head. “You aren’t going after Quade, I take it.”
“Then I’m not interested.”
If she thought they might need her or her gift, she wouldn’t hesitate to join his mission. But his elite unit had successfully crossed the wall countless times without her, always snatching one of Quade’s Chisanta and bringing them back. Peer didn’t ask because she would be of any particular use, he asked because he wanted to give her a distraction. A sense of purpose.
It was the same reason that Ko-Jin kept requesting she help train new recruits in hand-to-hand, despite the fact that her skill in that area was not exceptional. Even blighting Arlow Bowlerham had asked for her aid in running city patrols, citing her experience with law enforcement.
Bray was warmed by the concern of her friends, and she felt great affection for them. (Though, in the case of Arlow, great affection might be overstating the matter.) But she did not need or want this kind of help. They all had more than enough to grapple with already. And she was not without purpose.
“We’re chipping away at his resources. It’s worth doing,” Peer said, sounding stung by her dismissal.
“I don’t want to chip away,” Bray said through her teeth. “I want to kill him.”
“I know. But that hasn’t exactly…”
He trailed off, but she knew what he’d meant to say. It hadn’t worked. Her plans to assassinate Quade had all been unsuccessful, and the most recent attempt had cost two lives.
“We can’t stop trying,” she said.
“Long as it’s a plan and a team, not just you and a blade.”
Bray swiveled a glower in his direction. “That was months ago. I have already conceded it was a poor plan.”
“You might ’pologize to Whythe, then. He only took your gift ’cause I asked him to. And if we hadn’t stopped you…”
Again, he let his thought hang unfinished. They both knew that had Bray charged through the wall, as she’d meant to do the day after Yarrow’s final sacrifice, she would have given herself to Quade. No doubt he would have sent her right back through that wall to kill her friends.
“I did apologize,” Bray grumbled.
“‘I’m sorry’ don’t count if you say it angrily,” Peer said, but his tone held little censure. “And I’d really like if the two of you could be friends.”
Bray blinked into her lap. “I don’t have a problem with him. I’m sorry if I’ve come across cold. I just…”
Now it was her turn to leave a thought hanging. She wondered if he could fill in her missing words as readily as she had his. In truth, she liked Whythe just fine, but her heart was still too bloodied to form new attachments. And Peer’s bevolder had a cheery disposition that grated against her current mental state.
Peer slipped a thick piece of parchment from the pocket of his jerkin. “He’s been wonderin’ if he should give this to you. I wasn’t so sure,” he shrugged, “but if it were me I’d want to have it.”
He held out the paper, and Bray’s hand trembled as she reached for it. Whythe was a talented artist, with a particular interest in portraits, so she suspected she knew what this would be. The young man had drawn a wonderful likeness of Su-Hwan and gifted it to Peer, who had wept mightily, with both grief and gratitude.
Bray worried her lip as she accepted the paper. Her breath caught when she unfolded it, revealing the drawing within. It was of Yarrow, as she’d expected, but it was not simply a portrait.
The Yarrow rendered vividly here was shirtless—perhaps entirely nude, but the image ended at his mid-torso—and his hands were bound behind him. His face was lined with pain.
“Whythe drew Yarrow being tortured?” Bray asked in a hoarse whisper. “Why?”
“He drew it as it was happening, when he was guarding Yarrow before the hanging. He wasn’t himself at the time.”
“So, this is before he gave up his memories?” Bray asked, still whispering. Her eyes devoured this black-and-white Yarrow. It was awful to witness his suffering, but also strangely sublime to see his face with an emotion stamped upon it, even a negative one.
“Just before, apparently.”
Bray swallowed and wrapped the portrait again. “Thank him for me.”
“Why don’t you thank him yourself, next time you see him.”
Bray nodded vaguely. The picture felt heavy in her hands. She longed to look at it again, to stare and stare. But that would likely eat her up.
She braced herself. Here it is. Peer had been attempting to deliver bad news for weeks, but kept stopping himself short, and Bray hadn’t prodded him to continue. She didn’t want to hear what he had to say. She could guess easily enough—someone she loved was dead, and there were few enough candidates. But there was a difference between suspecting the truth and knowing it.
Peer’s chin dimpled, the way it always did when he was trying not to cry. He drew a deep breath, blinked, then changed course. “I better be going,” he said in a strangled voice.
She was glad he had weaseled out again. But still, the unsaid words hung heavy between them.
Peer pushed to his feet. “Got to get ready for tonight. Want to walk back with me?”
Bray had little desire to rise. “No, I’ll stay awhile. Good luck, brother.”
Peer angled a sad smile in her direction. He opened his mouth to say something, but once again changed his mind. He settled for a wave and then jogged away. She watched him lope down the hill.
Bray slumped onto the grass and stared at the limbs of the tree swaying above her. The sunlight illuminated each leaf, so she could see the dark stripes of the veins within.
She caressed the parchment lying beside her. It portrayed a moment that had been monumental in Yarrow’s life—one she had not been present for. She didn’t know what manner of torture he had endured, apart from his missing little finger. The thought of it gave her a queasy, hot feeling in her stomach.
Quade had done this. Quade must die.
She watched the branches dance in the afternoon breeze, and began to plot anew. Her efforts thus far had been fruitless, but that would not stop her from continuing on.
Quade would answer for what he had taken. It would give her no solace, because she could never reclaim what she had lost.
It mattered little—she did not seek solace, only blood.
“It’s a matter of optics,” Arlow said, shielding his eyes from the sun to survey the training grounds. “I’m not saying the lack of uniform is the most egregious shortcoming of your new military state, but possibly it’s the second. After the odor.”
Ko-Jin grunted, his gaze remaining fixed on where the queen sparred with the Elver woman. Arlow wondered when Ko-Jin’s former paramour had given birth; he could have sworn she’d still been pregnant last he saw her. Though, he wouldn’t be surprised if she’d popped out a kid that morning and was training again by mid-afternoon.
“Just picture this vista—” Arlow swept his hand, encompassing the sprawling slope of grass packed with soldiers, Chisanta, and training civilians—“but with matching suit jackets: well-pressed wool, lines of gleaming buttons. I’m thinking hunter green, though I suppose you’d argue for gray.”
“I’d argue for—” he bit off mid-sentence, catching himself. “We don’t have the money.” Ko-Jin’s growling tone of voice might have cowed a lesser spirit. But not Arlow.
“Epaulettes for the dress uniforms, of course. Silver or gold thread, depending on the color of the fabric. Quade’s taken navy, which is about as inspired a fashion choice as I’d expect from a man who still wears a four-button dinner jacket—”
“Arlow,” Ko-Jin snapped. “Are you really still—”
He finally took in Arlow’s expression, and his own changed in turn, softening into something nearer the carefree Ko-Jin of old.
The general sighed. “You’re doing that thing again, aren’t you? Being deliberately irritating, to…”
“Pull you out of your own head? Why yes, that is exactly what I’m doing. Really, I should be charging for the service at this point, between you and our mopey friend Bray.”
Ko-Jin snorted. “If she were here, she’d argue you aren’t friends.”
“So she would, but very deep down she loves me.”
“And grieving isn’t moping.”
“It is the way she does it.”
Arlow folded his arms across his chest. He glanced sideways at Ko-Jin’s face, trying to gauge the man’s current degree of unhappiness. The general would want neither condolences nor soft treatment. No man liked to be pitied, and Sung Ko-Jin less than most. But Arlow did feel sorry for his old friend, whose life had become difficult and tremendously unfair. How many ways could the Spirits conspire to break one heart?
They watched Chae-Na and Zarra circle each other, sure feet skimming across the dirt. He had to admit, he was impressed with the queen’s dedication to her training, given all her other responsibilities. Her commitment was plainly paying off. She was an agile fighter, possibly better than Arlow himself. He really should practice more…
Ko-Jin’s gaze locked onto Chae-Na with unveiled intensity, his eyes sad and guileless. Poor bastard.
He seemed to realize he’d been staring and looked away, clearing his throat. “How’s Mae?”
“Ballooning at an alarming rate.”
Ko-Jin barked out a laugh. It was such an uncommon sound these days that it drew the queen’s attention, and she was promptly knocked off her feet. “Doubt you’d say as much to her.”
“Spirits, no,” Arlow said, pleased with himself. He truly was an exemplary friend. “She’s been threatening to eat me for months. I’m not certain she’s joking.”
Arlow couldn’t quite stifle the smile twitching at the corner of his lips. It was a true enough statement, if a misleading one. That very morning she’d grazed her teeth along his bare shoulder and purred, “Spirits, Arlow, I just want to eat you.” If that was cannibalism, he was on board.
He shook himself from the thought, but not before a flush stole over his cheeks. Across the yard, nearer to the palace itself, a messenger sprinted in their direction.
“Looks like Yarrow’s made another prediction,” Arlow said. His good-feeling fizzled out like a damp fuse, as it always did when his departed friend came to mind.
Ko-Jin’s expression hardened again. He was still a handsome man—obnoxiously so, in Arlow’s opinion—but the past months had added years to his face. Grooves marked his brow and bracketed his mouth, and the spark of boyish joy in his eyes, which had survived well into his twenties, was now quite dead.
The messenger skidded to a halt before the general. “Urgent from scribe Raella, sir.”
Ko-Jin unfolded the slip of paper, his ever-shadowed eyes darting left and right. “He’s going to use Vendra’s vaporized drug for an airborne attack.”
“Three hours, just south of the Narrows.”
“I can take care of it,” Arlow said. It was his neighborhood, after all.
Ko-Jin bobbed his head in agreement and said to the messenger, “I need you to run to Dedrre’s shop and ask him about the gas masks, then deliver them to the Narrows.”
“And when you get there, track down Foy Rodgeman,” Arlow said. “Tell him Bowlerham wants the block evacuated.”
The lad saluted and took off at a sprint. Arlow watched him go for a moment, his thoughts flitting to the task ahead. “Where do you think she is?” he asked.
“The docks, probably,” Ko-Jin said.
“I’ll start there, then.” Arlow slapped his friend on the back. “Not expecting any trouble, but I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Ko-Jin squeezed his shoulder. “Be careful.”
He answered with a mock salute, “Aye, aye, General,” and set off for the stables.
A short time later, Arlow cantered down the busy streets of southern Accord, riding to the tune of clopping hooves and buzzing conversation. The mid-afternoon sun glared down from a cloudless sky. He slowed to a trot when the traffic grew too thick to bypass.
“Oy, Bowlerham,” a male voice bellowed from somewhere within the throng.
Arlow scanned the crowd and spotted a meaty hand waving for his attention. “Well met, Cline,” he said, maneuvering his steed to where the large man crouched beside a cart. “How fare your crops?”
Cline still looked the part of a street thug, with his lumpy nose and tattooed neck, but against all odds, he’d taken to farming with all the ease of a fish slipping into water. Most of the Pauper’s Men still worked street patrols, but more had volunteered for the urban farming project than Arlow would have guessed.
Cline jerked his head to the back of the cart, where crates of produce peeped from beneath a sheet. “Good haul this week. Got carrots and onions. Apples are finally ripe. Taters, of course.”
They had transformed the city in a mere half-year’s time. To the south, the swampy lands within the perimeter were now rice paddies. The crown had requisitioned most of the large estates in the east and converted them into farmland. Nearly every rooftop, lawn, and trash bin in the city was now a garden. As it turned out, any moron with a bucket of dirt could grow potatoes—lots of them. They had such an abundance, Arlow thought they might as well begin lobbing them over the walls at Quade’s army. Weaponized tubers. He’d have to suggest it to Ko-Jin when next he visited; that ought to annoy the general out of his doldrums for a few moments.
“Why don’t you put them soft, fancy hands of yours to use and help me with this,” Cline said, gesturing to the wheel of his cart. Arlow finally noticed that it was caught in a rut, which explained the hold-up in the street. He swung down to help. “One,” Cline said, bracing to lift the cart from his knees, “two, three.”
Arlow clenched his teeth and hefted. He was still straining when he heard the laughter of onlookers.
“Don’t pull a muscle, Pauper’s Prince,” someone shouted.
“He’ll be fine. Cosanta are limber. All that dancing, you know?”
Arlow glared at the cluster of strangers, all grinning in his direction. He had won a strange kind of notoriety throughout the capital, being the Chisanta husband of a criminal queen, an aristocrat’s son putting down roots in the Narrows. It came with a lot of mockery. “Friendly teasing, not mockery,” Mae would say. “People like you, Arlow. Despite your…you-ness.”
“You might help,” Arlow called to the crowd, his eyes narrowed.
Two large men stepped forward, and a moment later the cart was clear. Arlow dusted off his robes. Cline shook hands with the helpful strangers, who were all still smiling like jackasses.
“I better be off,” Arlow said, with one final sweeping glower. He leapt into his saddle. “Have a good one, Cline.”
“You too. Oy, Bowlerham?” the big man shouted. Arlow turned back. Just in time, he caught the projectile flying towards his head. He stared down at the apple in his fist. Fruit, he thought longingly.
“Thanks, mate,” he said, tucking the prize into the pocket of his robes. He left behind the chattering crowd, as he headed south towards the docks.
The air was thick and briny as the gulf came into view. It stretched to the horizon, glistening with summer sun and dotted with countless minute islands. Beyond the inlet, out in the Clay Sea, Quade’s blockade prevented travel abroad. But he had made no headway in penetrating the gulf itself, thanks mostly to the wiles of a certain pirate-turned-privateer: a vicious blond-bearded fellow who styled himself Captain Snapneck. Arlow was a little too interested in the man, primarily because he was a former sweetheart of Mae’s. “Blighter, Arlow, it was just a few kisses. And it was afore all the neck-snapping. Don’t make such a fuss.”
Riding along the docks, he searched among the deckhands and fishermen for a silver-haired girl. Arlow found her on the eighth pier, alongside the familiar slouching figure of his friend Roldon, who was singing one of his cheerful nonsense songs. “Swim, little fish, swim, swim on home.”
Clea was poised on bare feet, her sheet of pin-straight hair stirring in the salty breeze. “They’re coming. Just a little more, Rol.”
“Oh fish, you clever fish,” Roldon sang, his good-natured voice ringing out more loudly, “swim, swim to me.”
“Gotcha!” Clea shouted. She swept her hand up, and out in the gulf an entire school of fish rose from the sea. They hung in the air like a flock of wingless birds, gleaming silver and cascading water. She drew her hands inward, and the fish soared straight overhead, veering into a net strung up beside the pier. Arlow heard the furious slapping of the haul, as the fish flipped and floundered within their snare.
“We should record these songs for posterity,” he said, his boots thumping against the wet boards. “Lest we forget the brilliant lyrics that summoned fish from the very sea.”
Roldon swiveled, his light-brown braid caught in his fist. He grinned. “I got a way with animals, not a way with words.”
“I don’t know, I think it’s quite catchy,” Clea said with a wink, and then sang out in her silvery voice, “Oh fish, you clever fish…”
Roldon laughed. “Careful who you mock. I might just change the words.” He tilted his head to the sky and belted, “Oh gulls, you clever—”
Clea slapped a hand over Roldon’s mouth, and his eyes twinkled down at her. “No shower of bird shit, please.” She turned to Arlow. “So, what’s Quade planning to hit us with this time?”
“One of Vendra’s vaporized drugs.”
“Fun,” she said.
“He does keep things lively.” Arlow swept a hand back to the road. “So, shall we?”
They were halfway up the pier when Roldon shouted after them, “Right, I’ll just take care of all these fish by myself, then?”
Clea answered with only a wave, and Arlow snickered at the sound of his friend’s grumbling. He helped Clea into the saddle, hopped up behind her, and took off at speed.
“Are we short on time?” she asked over her shoulder.
“No,” he said. “But I’d rather be early than late.”
It was a short trip from the docks to the Narrows, now that the roads were less crowded. Civilians typically took care of business in the morning and afternoon, keeping off the streets at night. Quade still tended to pop into the city for brief, likely impromptu, bursts of violence.
Arlow rode through the near-empty streets at a quick clip, nodding his head to the patrols he passed along the way—both Chisanta and civilian. He slowed as he passed his soup shop. The rooms above had become home to himself and Mae; even the constant smell of simmering onions and garlic had grown comfortingly familiar, though he wished his clothes didn’t reek of it.
“Making a stop?” Clea asked.
Arlow hadn’t meant to. But now that he was here, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to pop in for a moment. They were still early.
“A brief one. You ride to the wall and find Rodgeman. I’ll catch up in a few minutes.”
He jumped to the road and slipped into the shop.
“Afternoon, Master Bowlerham.”
“Afternoon, Mistress Jeana.” Their frizzy-haired landlady had started to feel like a part of the family. Even her filthy apron no longer made Arlow cringe. Usually. “What’s the soup of the day?” he asked with a grin.
She rolled her eyes and returned her attention to the pot. “Potato.”
“Course it is,” he shouted as he loped up the steps. The doors upstairs were all shut. “Mae?”
“In here,” her voice drifted though the chamber door.
Arlow came to a dead halt in the threshold. His wife was in the bath.
“What,” she asked with false innocence, “want to join me?” This new tub she’d wrangled from somewhere or other was large enough that he could. In fact, that was the first thought that’d crossed his mind when the thing had been hauled up the stairs.
“Spirits…” he said. “Very much, yes. But… Blighter. I’ve got to save the city. Well, maybe I could… No. No, there isn’t time.”
“Pity,” she said. And then she dipped her head back to wet her hair, a motion that necessitated the arching of her back. Arlow stared.
He felt that someone, at some point in his life, should have told him about the wonderful transformation that occurs to a woman’s breasts during pregnancy. Though he supposed that might have spoiled the surprise.
He swore a few more times in his head. There had been months together when Mae had been sick all the time, and everything he’d said annoyed her. But in recent weeks she’d started looking at him like a tasty meal, with the same kind of enthusiasm her silly mule took to sugar cubes.
Spirits, Arlow, I just want to eat you.
He backed towards the door.
“Did you come for a reason?” she asked.
“What? Oh, yes.” He plucked the apple from his pocket. “You said you were craving something sweet.”
Her face lit up, and she extended a dripping hand. He thought it wiser to keep his distance, so he said, “Catch,” and lobbed the fruit as Cline had done. She caught it in two hands, and, with eyes still locked on his face, took a great crunching bite.
“Blighter,” Arlow wheezed, and he fled the room.
He was sweating by the time he found Clea and Rodgeman near the wall. They were both already wearing gas masks—an invention of Dedrre’s that filtered harmful toxins from the air. It made them look like giant insects.
“Cutting it close, Bowlerham,” Rodgeman said, as he proffered the third mask.
“What? We’ve still got a minute and a half. Plenty of time.”
He tugged the gas mask over his head. The glass eye-pieces distorted his vision, making Rodgeman appear rounded and bleared.
He closed his eyes and focused. Where should I be standing?
His gift gave him a slight nudge. “This way,” he said, and he guided them along the wall. Yarrow’s predictions provided the vicinity of the attack; Arlow’s gift helped to pinpoint the exact location. Arlow continued until he felt a distinct sense of rightness—an embrace in the air that called for him to stop.
“Here,” he said. “Let’s head up.”
Clea darted up the ladder first, and Foy Rodgeman followed. As he climbed, Arlow found the distorted look of his fingers on the rungs disorienting, but he kept his pace brisk. At the top, Foy took his arm and heaved him up onto the wall. The sun had begun to set, the sky deepening from blue to purple. Beyond the perimeter, Quade’s army sprawled in every direction. Campfires stippled the rolling hills like starlight.
Arlow’s mouth went dry. Every time he looked out over Quade’s encampment, he had the disconcerting sense that his eyes were playing tricks on him. There were so many people, it seemed it should not be possible.
“There they go,” Foy said, nodding his insect-head to the catapults assembled below. Arlow recalled how satisfying it had been to strap explosives to that first set of siege weapons all those months ago, to watch them burn and crumble. He had not realized just how readily a second set—and a third, and eighth—could be built.
An axe fell, splitting the rope that anchored the arm of the trebuchet. It shot forward with a groan, and a silver canister streaked into the air. It would have sailed straight over their heads and into the city, but Clea’s hands flicked and it halted above them. She glanced at Arlow, a brow raised.
“There,” Arlow said, pointing at random. She swatted her fingers, and the missile shot like a dart through the air. They heard a thump and a cry, but the men manning the catapult were already sprinting back to the camp.
“Is that it?” Foy asked.
Arlow surveyed the stretch of grass, but there were no other trebuchets loaded, no other soldiers in the vicinity. He pulled the mask up so he could see properly, his brow furrowed. “Looks like it.”
“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Clea said.
Arlow agreed. He wished he’d snagged a sack of potatoes from Jeana, so Clea might test his tater-missile theory.
But even that absurd mental image couldn’t shake the nagging sense that he was missing something. This wasn’t a real attack. Quade should have guessed the outcome. And only a single canister? Why bother at all?
This gave the impression of a quick prod of the finger. A distraction. But a distraction from what?
Foy was already climbing back down the ladder, Clea following as she hummed Roldon’s clever-fish song. But Arlow waited a little while, scanning the camp far below.
What are you thinking, Quade?
No answer presented itself. And so, at length, Arlow could do nothing but shrug. He set off for home.
If he was very lucky, perhaps his wife was taking an inordinately long bath.
Resolution of the Marked is available for pre-order now, and will release on February 19, 2019.