The queen had been walking the narrow, dirty streets of the Brightmist quarter when I spotted her. I hadn’t planned it, but even events unplanned can whisk us down paths that we never expected to travel, changing our destinies and what defines us. Kazimyrah: orphan, invisible street rat, girl who defied the queen, Rahtan.
I had already been shoved down one path when I was six, and the day I spit in the new queen’s face I was sent reeling down another. That moment had not only defined my future, but the queen’s unexpected response—a smile—had defined her reign. Her sword hung ready in the scabbard at her side. A breathless crowd had waited to see what would happen. They knew what would have happened before. If she were the Komizar, I would have already been lying headless on the ground. Her smile had frightened me more than if she had drawn her sword. I knew at that moment, with certainty, that the old Venda I knew how to navigate was gone, and I would never get it back again. I hated her for it.
When she learned I had no family to summon, she told the guards who had grabbed me to bring me along to Sanctum Hall. I thought I was so very clever back then. Too clever for this young queen. I was eleven years of grit and grovel by then, and impervious to an interloper. I would outwit her just as I did everyone else. It was my realm after all. I had all my fingertips— and a reputation to go with them. In the streets of Venda, they called me “Ten” with whispered respect.
A complete set of fingers was legendary for a thief, or an alleged thief, because if I had ever been caught with stolen goods, my nickname would have been Nine. The eight quarterlords who dispensed the punishment for stealing had a different name for me. To them, I was the Shadowmaker, because even at high noon, they swore, I could conjure a shadow to swallow me up. A few even rubbed hidden amulets when they saw me coming. But just as useful as the shadows was knowing the strategies of street politics and personalities. I perfected my craft, playing the quarterlords and merchants against one another as if I was a musician and they were crude drums rumbling beneath my hands, making one boast to another that I had never pulled anything over on him, making them all feel so very smart, even as I relieved them of items I could put to better use elsewhere. Their egos were my accomplices. The twisting alleyways, tunnels, and catwalks were where I learned my trade, and my stomach was my relentless taskmaster. But there was another kind of hunger that drove me too, a hunger for answers that were not as easily plucked from the wares of a bloated lord. That was my deeper, darker taskmaster.
But because of the queen, almost overnight I witnessed my world dissolving. I had starved and clawed my way to this position. No one was going to take it from me. The cramped, winding streets of Venda were all I had ever known, and its underworld was all I understood. Its members were a desperate coalition who appreciated the warmth of horse dung in winter, a knife in a burlap sack and the trail of spilled grain it left behind, the scowl of a duped merchant realizing he was short an egg in his basket—or, if I was feeling punitive, the whole chicken who had laid it. I had walked away with bigger and noisier things.
I liked to say I stole only because of hunger, but it wasn’t true. Sometimes I stole from the quarterlords just to make their miserable lives more miserable. It made me wonder, if I ever became a quarterlord, would I cut off fingers to secure my place of power? Because power, I had learned, could be just as seductive as a warm loaf of bread, and the small bit I wielded over them was sometimes all the food I needed.
With new treaties signed among the kingdoms allowing settlement of the Cam Lanteux, one by one those whom I thieved for and with left to go live in wide-open spaces to begin new lives. I became a plucked bird flapping featherless wings, suddenly useless, but moving to a farming settlement in
the middle of nowhere was something I would not do. It was something I could not do. I learned this when I was nine and had traveled just a short distance beyond the Sanctum walls in search of answers that had eluded me. When I looked back at the disappearing city and saw that I was a mere speck in an empty landscape, I couldn’t breathe and the sky swirled in dizzy currents. It hit me like a smothering wave. There was nowhere to hide. No shadows to melt into, no tent flaps to duck behind or stairs to disappear under—there were no beds to hide beneath in case someone came for me. There was no place to escape to at all. The structure of my world was gone
—the floor, the ceilings, the walls—and I floated loose, untethered. I barely made it back to the city and never left again.
I knew I would not survive in a world of open sky. Spitting in the queen’s face had been my futile stab at saving the existence I had carved out. My life had already been stolen once. I refused to let it happen again, but it happened just the same. Some rising tides cannot be held back, and the new world slipped around my ankles like water at the shore and pulled me into its current.
My first months in Sanctum Hall were turbulent. Why no one strangled me I still wasn’t certain. I would have. I stole everything in sight, and out of sight, and hoarded it in a secret passage beneath the East Tower staircase. No one’s private chambers were immune. Natiya’s favorite scarf, Eben’s boots, the cook’s wooden spoons, swords, belts, books, armory halberds, the queen’s hairbrush. Sometimes I gave them back, sometimes I didn’t, bestowing mercies like a capricious queen. Griz roared and chased me through the halls the third time I stole his razor.
Finally, one morning, the queen applauded me as I walked into the Council gallery, saying it was evident I had mastered thieving, but it was time I learned additional skills.
She rose and handed me a sword I had stolen.
I locked eyes with her, wondering how she had gotten hold of it. “I know that passage well too, Kazimyrah. You aren’t the only sneak in the Sanctum. Let’s put this to better use than rusting in a dark, damp stairwell, shall we?”
For the first time, I didn’t resist.
I wanted to learn more. I didn’t just want to possess the swords, knives, and maces I had acquired. I wanted to know how to use them too, and use them well.
* * *
The landscape was getting flatter now, as if huge hands had anticipated our passing and smoothed out the wrinkles of hills. The same hands must have plucked the hills clean of ruins. It was strange to see nothing. I had never traveled long on any path where some evidence of an earlier world wasn’t in view. The Ancients’ ruins were plentiful, but here there wasn’t so much as a single crumbling wall to cast a measly shadow. Nothing but open sky and unfettered wind pressing on my chest. I forced in deep, full breaths, focusing on a point in the distance, pretending it held a magical shadowed city waiting to greet me.
Griz had stopped and was conferring with Eben and Natiya about meet-up sites. It was time to part ways. When he was finished, he turned and cast a suspicious eye at the vastness ahead of us like he was searching for something. His gaze finally landed on me. I stretched and smiled as if I were enjoying a summer outing. The sun was high and threw sharp shadows across his battle-scarred face. The lines around his eyes deepened.
“One other thing. Watch your backs through this stretch. I lost two years of my life near here because I wasn’t looking over my shoulder.” He told us how he and an officer from Dalbreck had been pounced upon by labor hunters and dragged off to work in a mining camp.
“We’re well armed,” Wren reminded him.
“And there’s Synové,” I added. “You’ve got this covered, right, Syn?” She fluttered her eyes like she was seeing a vision, and nodded. “Got it.”
Then she flicked her fingers in a sweeping motion and whispered happily, “Now go enjoy your time with your sweetheart.”
Griz bellowed and threw his hand in the air, waving away the notion. He mumbled a curse as he rode away.
We managed to depart with no further instructions from Natiya. It had all been laid out already, both the ruse and the real. Eben and Natiya were going south to Parsuss, the seat of Eislandia, to speak with the king and make him aware we were intervening on his soil. He was a farmer first, like most Eislandians, and his entire army consisted of a few dozen guards who were also laborers in his fields. He was short on resources to deal with disturbances. Griz had also described the king as meek, more of a handwringer than a neck one, and at a loss for how to control his distant
northern territories. The queen was sure he wouldn’t object, but she was bound by protocol to inform him. It was a diplomatic precaution in case something went wrong.
But nothing would go wrong. I had promised her.
Even then, the Eislandian king would only be told the ruse of our visit, not our real mission. That was too closely guarded a secret, not to be shared even with the ruling monarch.
I tucked the map away and nudged my horse forward in the direction of Hell’s Mouth. Synové looked back, watching Eben and Natiya go their own way, judging how far apart they rode and whether they were exchanging words. Why she had an affection for him I didn’t know, but there had been others. Synové was in love with love. As soon as they were out of earshot, she asked, “Do you think they’ve done it?”
I was hoping she meant something else, but I asked anyway. “Who did what?”
“Eben and Natiya. You know, it.”
“You’re the one with the knowing,” Wren said. “You should know.”
“I have dreams,” Synové corrected. “And if you both tried a little harder, you’d have dreams too.” Her shoulders shivered with distaste. “But that’s one dream I don’t care to have.”
“She does have a point,” I said to Wren. “Some things shouldn’t be imagined or dreamed.”
Wren shrugged. “I’ve never seen them kiss.” “Or even hold hands,” Synové added.
“But neither is exactly the affectionate type either,” I reminded them.
Synové’s brow squiggled in contemplation, none of us saying what we all knew. Eben and Natiya were devoted to each other—in a very passionate way. I suspected they had done far more than kissing, though it wasn’t something I dwelled upon. I really didn’t care or want to know. In some ways, I supposed I was like Griz. We were Rahtan first, and there was time for little else. It only created complications. My few brief dalliances with soldiers I had pledged with only led to distractions that I decided I didn’t need—the risky kind, ones that stirred a longing in me and made me think about a future that couldn’t be counted on.
We rode along, with Synové doing most of the talking, as she always did, filling the hours with multiple observations, whether it was the waving grass brushing our horses’ fetlocks or the salty leek soup her aunt used to make. I knew at least part of the reason she did it was to distract me from a flat, empty world that sometimes bobbed and weaved and threatened to fold me into its open mouth. Sometimes her chatter worked. Sometimes I distracted myself in other ways.
Wren suddenly put her hand out as warning and signaled us to stop. “Riders. Third bell,” she said. The sharp edge of her ziethe sliced the air as she drew and spun it, ready. Synové was already nocking an arrow.
In the distance, a dark cloud skimmed the plain, growing larger as it sped toward us. I drew my sword, but then suddenly the dark cloud veered upward, into the sky. It flew close over our heads, a writhing antelope in its claws. The wind from the creature’s wings lifted our hair, and we all instinctively ducked. The horses reared. In a split second, the creature was already gone.
“Jabavé!” Wren growled as we worked to calm our horses. “What the hell was that?”
Griz had neglected to warn us about this. I had heard of these creatures, a rumor really, but thought they were only in the far north country above Infernaterr. Apparently not today.
“Racaa,” Synové answered. “One of the birds that eat Valsprey. I don’t think they eat humans.”
“Think?” Wren yelled. Her brown cheeks glowed with fury. “You’re not sure? How much different could we taste than an antelope?”
I slid my sword back into its scabbard. “Different enough, we can hope.” Wren recomposed herself, putting her ziethe away. She wore two of them, one on each hip, and kept them razor sharp. She was more than capable of taking on two-legged attackers, but a winged attack required a moment of reassessment. I saw the calculations spinning in her mind. “I
could have taken it down.”
No doubt. Wren had the tenacity of a cornered badger.
The demons that drove her were as demanding as mine, and she had honed her skills to a sharp, unforgiving edge. She had watched her family slaughtered in Blackstone Square when her clan made the deadly mistake of cheering for a stolen princess. The same with Synové, and though Syn
played the cheerful innocent, there was a lethal undercurrent that ran through her. She had killed more raiders than Wren and I put together. Seven by last count.
With her arrow back in its quiver, Synové resumed her chatter. At least for the rest of our ride she had something else to talk about. Racaa were a whole new diversion.
But the racaa’s shadow sent my thoughts tumbling in another direction. By this time next week, it would be us swooping down on Hell’s Mouth, casting our own shadow, and if all went well, within a short time I would be departing with something far more vital than an antelope in my claws.
Six years ago a war was waged, the bloodiest the continent had ever seen. Thousands died, but only a handful of men were its architects. One of those men was still alive, and some thought he was the worst—the Watch Captain of the citadelle in Morrighan. He betrayed the very kingdom he had sworn to protect, and slowly infiltrated the fortress with enemy soldiers in order to weaken Morrighan and help it to fall. Some soldiers who had been under his command had simply disappeared, maybe because they became suspicious. Their bodies were never found. His crimes were numerous. Among them, helping to poison the king and murder the crown prince and thirty-two of his comrades. The Watch Captain had been the most hunted fugitive on the continent ever since.
He had twice escaped the kingdoms’ clutches, and then he seemed to have vanished completely. No one had seen him in five years, but now a chance sighting and a merchant eager to share information had become a hopeful lead. He gave over his own kingdom, the queen had told me, and the lives of thousands to feed his greed for more. Hungry dragons may sleep for years, but they do not change their eating habits. He must be found. The dead demand justice, as do the living.
Even before I visited the valley of dead, I already knew the cost of lurking dragons, ones who crept through the night, crashing into a world and devouring whatever pleased them. The queen’s fugitive would pay because he stole dreams and lives without ever looking back, not caring about the destruction he left in his wake. Some dragons might slip away forever, but if Captain Illarion, who betrayed his countrymen and brought about the death of thousands, was there, Tor’s Watch could not hide him. I would steal him away, and he would pay—before his hunger killed more.
I need you, Kazimyrah. I believe in you. The queen’s belief in me had meant everything.
It was a job I was uniquely qualified for, and this mission was an undeserved chance to redeem myself. A year ago, I’d made a mistake that almost cost me my life and put a blemish on the near perfect record of the queen’s premier guard. Rahtan meant “never fail,” but I had failed dismally. Hardly a day passed that I didn’t think of it.
When I had mistaken an ambassador from Reux Lau for someone else, it had unleashed something wild and feral in me that I didn’t know was there
—or maybe it was a wounded animal I had been secretly feeding for a long time. My hands and legs were not my own, and they propelled me forward. I hadn’t intended to stab him, at least not immediately, but he lunged unexpectedly. He survived my attack. Luckily my knife hadn’t slashed deeply. His wound only required a few stitches. Our whole crew was arrested and thrown in prison. As soon as it was determined I acted alone, they were released—but I sat in a prison cell in a southern province for two months. It took the queen herself to smooth it over and obtain my release.
Those months gave me a lot of time to think. In a split second, I had abandoned my control and patience—the very things I took pride in and that had saved my skin for years. And maybe worse, the mistake made me question my own memory. Maybe I didn’t remember his face anymore. Maybe it was gone like so many other memories that had faded, and that possibility terrified me even more. If I didn’t remember, he could be anywhere and anyone.
Once we returned, it was Eben who told the queen about my past. I didn’t know how he even knew. I had never told anyone, and no one really cared about where a street rat came from. There were too many of us.
The queen had called me into her private chamber. “Why didn’t you tell me about your mother, Kazimyrah?”
My heart beat madly, and a sick, salty taste crawled up my throat. I forced it down and locked my knees, afraid they might buckle.
“There’s nothing to tell. My mother is dead.” “Are you certain she’s dead?”
In my heart I was certain, and I prayed to the gods every day that she was.
“If the gods are merciful.”
The queen asked if we might talk about it. I knew she was only trying to help me, and I did owe her a fuller explanation after all she had done for me, but this was a confused knot of memory and anger I hadn’t untangled myself yet. I excused myself without answering her.
When I left her chamber, I cornered Eben in the stairwell and lashed out. “Stay out of my business, Eben! Do you hear me? Stay out!”
“You mean stay out of your past. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Kazi. You were six years old. It’s not your fault that your—”
“Shut up, Eben! Don’t ever bring up my mother again or I’ll slit your throat and it will happen so quickly and quietly, you won’t even know you’re dead.”
His arm shot out, and he blocked my way so I couldn’t pass. “You need to confront your demons, Kazi.”
I lunged at him, but I was out of control and he wasn’t. He expected my attack and whirled me around, pinning me to his chest, squeezing me so tightly I couldn’t breathe even as I railed against him.
“I understand, Kazi. Believe me, I understand what you feel,” he had whispered in my ear.
I raged. I screamed. No one could understand. Especially not Eben. I hadn’t yet come to grips with the memories he stirred. He couldn’t know that every time I looked at his stringy black mop of hair hanging over his eyes, or his pale, bloodless skin, or his dark, menacing gaze, all I saw was the Previzi driver who had crept into my hovel in the middle of the night, holding a lantern in the darkness asking, Where is the brat? All I saw was myself cowering in a pool of my own waste, too afraid to move. I was not afraid anymore.
“You’ve been given a second chance, Kazi. Don’t throw it away. The queen stuck her neck out for you. She can only do that so many times. You’re not powerless anymore. You can make other things right.”
He held me tight until there was no struggle left in me. I was weak when I finally pulled free, still angry, and I skulked away to hide in a dark passage of the Sanctum where no one could find me.
I learned later from Natiya that maybe Eben did understand. He was five when he witnessed an ax being planted in his mother’s chest and he watched while his father was burned alive. His family had tried to settle in the Cam Lanteux before there were treaties to protect them. He was too
young to identify who did it or even to know what kingdom they were from. Finding justice was impossible for him, but his parents’ deaths remained etched in his memory. As I got to know Eben better and worked with him more, I no longer saw the Previzi driver when I looked at him. I just saw Eben along with his own quirks and habits—and someone who had his own scarred past.
Make other things right.
It was a turning point for me, yet another new start. More than anything I wanted to prove my loyalties to someone who had not only given me a second chance, but had also given all of Venda a second chance. The queen.
There was one thing I could never make right. But maybe there were other things that I could.
Gather close, my brothers and sisters.
We have touched the stars, And the dust of possibility is ours.
But the work is never over.
Time circles. Repeats.
We must ever be watchful.
Though the Dragon rests for now, He will wake again
And roam the earth, His belly ripe with hunger.
And so shall it be, For evermore.