“Dear gods, Kazi. We’ve got to call a healer. Fikatande dragnos!” It wasn’t just surprise I heard in Wren’s voice. It was fear.
“No. I’ll be fine.” Wren and Synové helped me over to the tub so I wouldn’t get more blood on the floor. “Just help me rewrap it.”
“Not until it’s clean,” Synové argued. She remembered something about that in our training. The truth was, none of us had ever had a major injury, and that was because what we did, we did well—only others came away injured. The problem was, none of us were sure how to clean it and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. The pain was already making it hard for me to focus. It took all my control to keep my hands from shaking, which made no sense because they weren’t injured. I curled my fingers into my palms to keep them still.
Wren took a closer look and let loose with another long string of curses against the black toothy beasts.
I had barely made it back to my room when Wren and Synové had arrived for tonight’s dinner party. Mason had delivered them to my door early to await the evening with me, but he hadn’t seen me. I called from the bath chamber for them to come in.
A shudder of air escaped my throat as I lifted my foot into the tub. I should have worn my boots, but the slippers were quieter.
It mostly got my ankle, but the bites went to the bone. The puncture wounds burned like hot pokers were stabbing my flesh, and there was a
one-inch jagged tear on the inside of my calf. That’s where most of the blood was coming from.
“What if it punctured an artery?” Synové wailed. “You could bleed to death!”
“Keep your voice down,” I warned. “If it had punctured anything vital, I’d be dead already. It was a long way back here from the tunnel.” My greatest worry was if I had left a trail of blood behind—evidence of where I’d been.
It had seemed like the perfect timing to do a little poking around. Jase and the others weren’t back, and the night dogs hadn’t been released yet. I searched Darkcottage first. It had been a simple enough task, because it was so clearly empty—the larder bare, the oven cold, and there were no signs of personal belongings in any of the rooms.
Riverbend had been fairly easy to navigate too. With so much activity in the gardens, preparing for tonight’s dinner party, the domicile of the Ballenger employees was mostly empty. That left Greycastle. I was nearly spotted as I crept down a hallway, peeking into rooms, but I heard the floor creak just before Uncle Cazwin came around a corner. I slipped into an alcove and he passed without a suspicion. The captain didn’t turn up in any of the rooms there either.
I made Greyson Tunnel my next target. I had slipped effortlessly through it. There weren’t many workers in it like the first time I had passed, perhaps because they’d been called to the gardens to help with those preparations, and it seemed every passing wagon and dark shadow was conspiring with me to cover my steps. In minutes, I made it to the intersecting tunnel marked with the faded Ballenger crest. I discovered there were three more tunnels that branched off from it that got progressively smaller. I chose the farthest one and walked to the end, using the same logic of searching for valuables in a chest—the best things were always hidden in the bottom.
Except for the eerie echo of dripping water, I hadn’t heard a sound. And then I rounded a corner. I had peeked first to make sure no one was there. The small dark tunnel only extended another twenty feet and appeared empty, a wide metal door blocking the end. A dim line of light shone at the bottom. I walked forward to investigate and test the lock. I hadn’t seen the black dogs chained in dark alcoves on either side of the door.
But they saw me.
They were silent devils, knowing exactly what they were doing, waiting for me to step into range, and then they lunged. I kicked them off fast but not before the damage was done. I was lucky they only got my leg. As soon as I was out of their reach, I ripped off my shirt and wrapped my ankle, carefully wiping the drips of blood from the floor as they snarled and lunged at the end of their chains. If someone had been alerted by the noise, they’d be there in seconds. In those first few frantic moments, I felt no pain, but I knew it was bad. I knew I was in trouble. My fingertips tingled wildly like needles were shooting from them. All I could think in that shocked moment was, I had to get back before someone discovered me.
Synové poured water over my ankle in an effort to clean it. A groan trembled between my clenched teeth. “I’m sorry, Kaz,” she cried as she dabbed it. “Damn, there’s another gash back here that you didn’t see.”
I didn’t need to see that one too. There were more than a dozen puncture marks dotted around my ankle like a macabre lace stocking.
“Wrap it,” I said between gritted teeth. “Just wrap it. That’s enough cleaning.”
They both tried to convince me again that a healer was necessary. “And how will I explain how I got these? Tell Jase I was just taking a quick sneak around?” I drew a deep breath and told Wren to go down to the kitchen.
Her gaze was fixed on the bloody water trickling down the tub toward the drain. “I don’t know the way!”
“Don’t worry, you won’t get far before someone stops you—say you have a terrible headache and need something for pain. Ask for serpent’s claw, capsain—anything. I need to be back on my feet before the party.” If the captain was indeed holed up at Tor’s Watch, we were hoping he would be among the guests.
“There’s one other thing,” I said, grabbing Wren’s arm before she left. “The man who tailed me today? He hasn’t always worked for the Ballengers. He used to be a Previzi driver.”
Wren shook her head. “Are you sure? I didn’t recognize him.”
“I’m sure,” I said, and told them he was the driver who had brought the tiger to the jehendra all those years ago. “I think he recognized me too.”
“That’s impossible,” Synové said. “No one even knew you stole it.”
Wren blew out a worried sigh. “But she did have a reputation. She was always suspect.”
“But she has breasts now! Hips! She doesn’t even look the same.”
I kept telling myself that too. I had changed. I had meat on me now. My cheeks were no longer hollow caves. I was barely the same person at all. But his eyes had been anchored onto mine, and in that moment I had seen something flicker in his memory. “If he’s here at Tor’s Watch, or at the party tonight, avoid him. And if he says anything, tell him I was a barrow runner for Sanctum Hall. Steer him in that direction. Deny anything else.”
Wren nodded and left. While she was gone, Synové carefully wrapped my leg. Just the pressure of the cloth pressing against the wounds made the throb worse.
“They need sewing, Kazi,” Synové said apologetically. I didn’t answer. Sewing was out of the question. A one inch tear could heal without being sewn up. Her eyes became watery. “I had a dream the night you disappeared. I saw you tumbling in water and you were drowning, but I never saw this. These damn dreams! They’re worthless.” She wiped angrily at her lashes.
I reached out and grabbed her hand. “I did tumble in water, Syn. And I did almost drown. Your dreams were right.”
Her brow shot up. “Was it him who saved you?”
“Yes. More than once. He protected me against a bear, and he carried me across blistering sand. Have you had any other dreams?”
She bit her lip, hesitant. “I dreamed you were chained in a prison cell.” “That’s not so surprising. I have been before. Sometimes dreams are
only dreams, Synové. You were worried about me.”
“But in my dream you were soaked in blood. I wasn’t sure if you were alive.”
“I promise, I have no intention of spending time in a prison cell ever again. It was only a dream.” I hoped.
Wren returned with a tiny vial of crystals. It looked like simple salt. I sniffed skeptically, but there was no scent. She said Mason had intercepted her at the end of a hallway just as I had predicted. He led her to the kitchen and then searched through a storage room for the crystals. He poured some from a large canister into the vial for her. “He called it birchwings and said to mix it with water and drink it to ease pain.”
Synové snorted. “Mason? I should have gone for the medicine.” “How much do I take?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Wren answered. “Half of it? Maybe just a spoonful?” Her face twisted with worry. “I’m not sure he said.”
At this point, I didn’t care. I just wanted the pain to stop. Synové poured a quarter of it into a cup of water. The glass shivered in my hand as I downed the flavorless potion. They helped me to the bed and I lay down, my foot elevated on a pillow. Wren smoothed the hair from my face and lay beside me. Synové crawled onto the end of the bed, her hand rubbing my uninjured foot, and she began commenting on the accommodations to fill the silence. I smiled as she assessed the heavy blue drapes that surrounded Jase’s bed. Oh, the stories I bet these could tell …
* * * They told me I slept solid for two hours.
When I sat up, my leg was stiff and oddly heavy like it wasn’t my own, but the pain was gone. There was only a mild throb when I swung my foot over the side of the bed and put weight on it. I held up the birchwings vial with supreme admiration. “I’ll be sure to bring this along tonight in case I need more.”
“Nope,” Wren said, snatching it from my hand. “It’s also what knocked you out cold for the last two hours.” I eyed the deceivingly benign vial in Wren’s hand. Powerful crystals like that could be useful. “Unless, of course,” Wren added, “you want that Ballenger boy carrying you back to your room?”
Synové winked. “Of course she does.” She turned, waving to the side. “Look what came while you were out.”
Laid out across the armchair were three dresses.
“The yellow one is mine,” Synové beamed. “I already tried it on. It fits in all the right places—if you know what I mean.”
We knew. Synové had a lot of right places, and she knew it. Everyone always thought she was older than she was.
“I have to applaud Madame Ballenger,” she added, “very perceptive of her in light of the short notice. She barely got a glimpse of me in town. The violet one’s yours.”
That left the one in the middle for Wren. She stared at it like it had gills and claws. “I am not wearing that thing. I don’t even know what color that
“Pink,” I said. “Like a tongue?”
Synové squinted one eye. “A cold, pale tongue. Wouldn’t you like to feel that on your skin?”
I shot Synové a warning glare. Sometimes I had to use my thieving skills even with my friends and right now something needed to be stolen back— Wren’s confidence. Nothing was going quite as planned, and she demanded that everything follow an ordained path. She liked to be prepared and for a strategy to play out as, well, as planned. She would have made a terrible thief, because being ready to pivot and change the plan in the flutter of an eyelash was what had kept all my fingers intact. Pivot was practically one of my rules. Our plan had gone awry, and this latest misstep, seeing me on the floor of the bath chamber with blood spattering the tiles, had pricked memories that for her would never be shaken. And nowhere in our carefully wrought plan was Wren supposed to attend a party at Tor’s Watch in a pink gown. She was supposed to gather supplies, get me whatever I needed, keep her ziethe sharp and her eyes sharper, and be ready to move when the signal was sent. Now, as she looked at the dress, I knew she was already wondering where her ziethe would go.
But tonight a party was ordered, and it was essential that we appear relaxed, as true guests with nothing to worry about—so the Ballengers would relax too. Not to mention the guests who might be there.
I tested my foot, and when it appeared stable, I crossed the room and touched Wren’s dress. I knew how to entice her. “Oh, this is unexpected,” I said, gathering it up in my hands. I lightly passed the hem over my cheek.
“What?” she asked.
“The fabric. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt anything so soft. It feels like it’s woven from clouds. Feel,” I said, holding it out to her.
She shook her head, refusing, her curls bobbing, but she stepped forward anyway, and gave it a cursory swipe with her fingers.
Wren was sharp, calculating, seeing every move I made, and knowing on some deep level why I made them. Trust me, Wren. As tough as she was, she knew her weaknesses, too—and the things that brought her comfort. I had never known why she was so drawn to soft things, why she was drawn to that fleece in the marketplace that I stole for her, or the downy duckling
she had cupped in her hands at a pond and been reluctant to let go. I was sure it was tangled up in something from her past, all of those things that none of us talked about, the secrets that we stuffed down deep in a dark broken part of us. Maybe it was something that even she didn’t understand. It might be something as simple as the memory of her mother’s cheek touching her own.
“It’s soft,” she admitted, still noncommittal, “but that color.” “The violet one might fit you. We could trade.”
She grabbed the pink dress from me, already knowing all the reasons why she needed to wear it, why she needed to smile and pretend we were there for no other reason than what everyone believed, that we were honored guests of the Ballengers.
“But I’m still wearing my ziethe,” she said.