Not well. There were few opportunities in Sanctum City for swimming. The Great River was too cold and too violent. I’d had some training as Rahtan but didn’t get past the basics of floating. There was simply nowhere to practice.
But his accusing question galled me. Dead weight dragging him under? He was the one who passed the keys to others before freeing us. He was the one who pushed us down an embankment, making me lose the keys. The hunter was quickly approaching, another just behind him with their weapons poised to bash in our heads, or at least disable us enough to drag us back to the wagon. There was no other choice. The river was a long way down, but this time I would be the one doing the pushing. I grabbed his arm and jumped.
It seemed forever before we hit, the surface surprisingly hard as we broke through. It viciously slammed into my ribs, and then we were tumbling in the current. I didn’t know which way was up, and my lungs were bursting searching for a breath. I kicked, struggled to find the surface, find air, find the way up, but there were only thousands of bubbles, flashes of light, swirls of darkness, and a vise clamping down on my chest, the last breath I had gulped seeping away as I kicked desperately, and then I felt something gripping my arm, fingers digging in, jerking me upward, and I broke the surface, gasping for air.
“Lean back!” he yelled. “Cross your legs! Feet forward!” Jase pulled me so I was between his arms, leaning back against his chest, rapids splashing over us, spinning us, but each time he righted our course and we shot down the river like aimless leaves swept away on its surface. The riverbanks on either side weren’t far away, but they were lined with boulders and we were moving too swiftly to risk grabbing on to one. I choked as rapids splashed into my mouth and up my nose. His arms held me tight, pulling me backward when I tried to lean up. “Relax against me,” he ordered. “Go with the current. When it widens and calms, we’ll make our way to the side.” His survival depended on mine and mine on his. We truly were anchors to each other. The only good thing about the fearsome ride was it was taking us far from the labor hunters. The current finally slowed, and stretches of sandy banks began to appear. “A little farther,” he said, his face tucked next to mine, “to make sure they can’t follow.”
We had already gone a mile down the river, or more. My legs throbbed, and I was relieved when he started maneuvering us toward a sandy bank. I finally felt my feet touch bottom, and we both stumbled out. We collapsed on the bank, gasping. My hair was a mass of tangles in front of my face, my heart still pounding. I glanced to the side. He lay next to me on his back, his eyes closed, his chest heaving, and his hair dripping in wet strings.
I may have put one threat behind me, but now I was chained to another
—in the middle of nowhere. There was no pretending that we were friends, and now I had no weapon. Neither did he, but he was undeniably bigger and stronger than me, and I had seen what his fist could do. It was clear I needed to strike at least a temporary truce.
Once I caught my breath, I asked, “What now?”
His head rolled to the side and he looked at me, a long searing stare. His eyes were clear, bright, the haze of drink long vanished from them, and his irises were the same deep brown as the earth he was lying on.
“Did you have something in mind?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure if it was sarcasm or humor. Maybe both, but his eyes remained locked on mine. An uneven breath squeezed my lungs.
“I’m just saying, I know you don’t like me, and I don’t like you, but until we can be free of each other, I guess we’ll have to make the best of it.”
He blinked. Long and slow. Definitely sarcasm. And distaste.
He turned away and looked up into the sky as if he was thinking it over. “You have a name?” he finally asked, without looking at me.
I paused. I wasn’t sure why it felt risky to tell him. It was strangely personal, but I was the one who suggested we make the best of it. “Kazi,” I said, waiting for him to deride it.
“And your family name?”
“Vendans don’t use surnames. We’re known by where we’re from. I’m known as Kazi of Brightmist. It’s a quarter in Sanctum City.”
He quietly repeated my name but said nothing more, staring upward. I was sure he was conjuring all the possible ways he could be rid of me. If only he had that ax to hack away my foot that bound me to him. He finally stood and held his hand out, waiting for me to take it. I cautiously grabbed hold of his wrist and he helped me to my feet, but he didn’t release my arm, tugging me closer instead. He looked down at me. “And I do have a name too, even though you’re fond of calling me pretty boy. Jase Ballenger,” he said. “But you probably already knew that, didn’t you? Considering you intended to arrest me.” Uneasy seconds passed, his grip still strong. Dark clouds flashed in his eyes. Our truce was off to a shaky start.
“The arrest wasn’t imminent,” I replied. “There were still more questions to ask, accusations to review, and then I would have called you in for further discussion.”
“You call me in? Hell’s Mouth is my city. Just who do you think you are?”
Your worst nightmare, Jase Ballenger, I fumed, but I molded my words into a calm reply. “Do you want to make the best of this or not?”
He sucked in a slow, heated breath and swallowed his next words. He released my arm and turned, taking in our surroundings as though he was appraising our situation. “All right, then, Kazi of Brightmist, let’s see if we can make the best of it and get out of here.” His gaze jumped to the ridge on the opposite bank, then back to the forest behind us. He pointed to his left. “I think…” He shook his head and his finger shifted slightly to the right. “I think there’s a settlement in that direction. Closest civilization we’re going to find that doesn’t put us right back in the hunters’ path. Maybe a hundred miles.”
A hundred miles? Chained, barefoot, with no weapons or food?
And with someone who was about as trustworthy as a merchant’s wink. But I was sure survival was on his mind too. “What kind of settlement?” I asked.
“The only kind that’s out here. One of yours.”
There was no attempt to hide his disapproval. I looked in the direction he had pointed, still uncertain. “Where’s Hell’s Mouth from here?” I asked.
“Other side of the river, where the hunters are. And more than a day’s ride east.”
A day? Had I been knocked unconscious for that long? My stomach rumbled in confirmation, and his conclusion rang with some truth. There was another Vendan settlement far west of Eislandia. Casswell was one of the first and largest settlements—several hundred strong. They would have the supplies and resources to help me, in one way or another.
The chain rattled between us, and he shifted on his feet. “Well?” he asked. “You have a better idea?”
Not at the moment. “We’ll head toward the settlement,” I answered. “But…” he said, taking a step closer, his eyes narrowing, “here’s the real
question: If I get you back to civilization, you still think you’re going to call me in for further discussion?”
Was that a veiled threat? If I get you back? The chain firmly connecting us now seemed like a blessed assurance I wouldn’t be bludgeoned the minute I turned my back. Everything about his stance was smug confidence. This was a game for him. A challenge. I’d bite.
“I’d be a fool to answer that, now, wouldn’t I, considering my predicament?”
An amused huff jumped from his chest. “I’d say you’d be a fool not to.”
I stared at him, trying to judge how much was bluster and how much genuine threat. “Then shall we simply agree to go our separate ways, once we reach the settlement? No foul, no gain.”
“Separate ways,” he said. “Agreed.”
We got our last drinks at the river since we didn’t know when we would come across fresh water again, and then I stopped to toe some small rocks I spotted on the bank. I picked one up, turning it over in my hand.
“That for me?” he asked.
I glanced up. This time, humor. A grin lit his eyes. He was impossible to predict, which only added to my misgivings. Quarterlords and their greedy
egos were as easy to forecast as a snowy day in winter. Every exchange of words between Jase and me seemed like a dance, a step forward, a step back, circling, both of us leading, anticipating, wondering what the next move would be. He didn’t trust me any more than I trusted him.
“Flint,” I answered. “And my buckle is firesteel. The hunters may have relieved me of my valuables, but at least my belt was worthless to them. A fire will be welcome tonight.”
He looked at my buckle, a brown oval of metal shaped like a serpent, and nodded his approval of this development. A step forward.
“Then I better keep my eyes open for some dinner.” He stepped toward the forest to leave.
“Hold up,” I said. “Before we go, I need you to turn around.” “What?”
“I need to pee. Turn around.”
“We just got out of a river. Why didn’t you pee there?”
“Maybe because I was doing this little thing called fighting for my life.” “You mean I was fighting for your life. You just went along for the
“Turn around,” I ordered. “Turn my back on you?”
I smiled. “Don’t worry,” I answered, spitting his own words back into his face, “I wouldn’t want to be chained to a dead weight. You’re safe, pretty boy.”
“I don’t even get a riddle first?” I narrowed my eyes.
He slowly turned. “Hurry.”
I had done more humiliating things I supposed, but at the moment I couldn’t remember what they were. I took care of my business quickly. Making the best of it was not going to be easy.
When he turned around again, he reached toward me and I flinched. My hand shot up ready to strike.
“Whoa! Hold on,” he said, pulling back. “I was just going to take a look at your face. You’ve got quite a shiner blooming there.”
I reached up and touched my jaw, feeling the heat of a fresh bruise.
He shrugged. “I’m not saying it wasn’t worth it—you got your hands on the keys—but it makes me wonder, is there anything you won’t do to get
what you want?”
I eyed him cautiously. “Some things,” I answered. But not many.