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Chapter no 9 – Tessa

Defy the Night

This time when I head for the workshop, I’m wide awake, my mask tied

rmly in place, kohl darkly smudged around my eyes. My jaw aches, but I ignore it. My chest burns with anger and rage at the king, the prince, the horrible way we’re all treated for doing what we have to do to survive.

My mind burns with the need for action.

e night patrol has been doubled, and even though I carry nothing more than my apothecary books, I slip through the woods with extra care. I won’t bother to light the re while I wait for Wes, because I don’t want to take any chances. My heart has been tripping along in my chest all night.

When I get to the workshop, however, I don’t need to wait. Wes is there already, leaning against the doorway, barely more than a shadow.

I stop short in surprise, but he straightens, then lets out a breath. “Tessa.”

All the horror I’ve felt all day seems to evaporate when I see that he’s still safe.

“Did you see?” I say soly. “Were you there?”

He doesn’t need me to be speci c. He nods, and his voice is grave. “I saw.” He pauses, then glances out at the early morning darkness. “e patrol is everywhere. ey’re searching the forges.”

It’s unusual for Wes to sound unsettled, and that makes me unsettled. I swallow. “I heard.”

His eyes return to meet mine. “It’s a risky night for thieving and delivering.”

“It’s always risky,” I whisper.

“I heard that three got away. ere’s quite a reward for their capture.” He pauses. “For the capture of any outlaw.”

“I heard that, too.” Everyone who came into the shop this aernoon was talking about it.

Wes says nothing; he just looks at me.

It takes me a moment for realization to smack me across the face, and I draw back. “You think someone might turn us in.”

He snorts, then runs his hands over his jaw. “It’s a lot of money, Tessa.” A hint of his familiar grin skips across his face. “I’m surprised you’re not waiting here to turn me in.”

“How do you know I’m not?” I tease, though everything is so serious that the words fall a bit at.

Any hint of a smile vanishes, but there’s a gentle warmth in Wes’s voice when he says, “Because you wouldn’t.”

I blush, and I’m glad for the mask and the darkness. He’s not wrong. I tug my treble hook from my pack and spin it in the night air. “We’re losing the darkness.”

He catches the hook with his nimble ngers, forcing it still. We stand there in absolute silence for the longest time, connected by the narrow length of rope. His eyes are heavy and dark and intent, and I wish I could read his thoughts. I’m glad he can’t read mine.

I swallow and try to keep my mind on business. “Who are the Benefactors? Do you know?”

“No.” He pauses. “I thought you might.”

I shake my head. “We can ask when we make our rounds.”

Wes says nothing for a moment, and when he speaks, his voice is very low. “ere are calls for revolution. e king won’t allow it to stand. ey’ll make an example of anyone they catch.”

ey always do.”

He snorts. “I don’t think we’ve seen the worst they can do.” “You’re afraid.” I breathe.

His eyes skip away, and his jaw tightens. “I’m not afraid for me.” For me? Or for others in the forges? I’m scared to ask. “Wes.”

“I’ve seen the atrocities they commit, Tessa. I’ve heard the stories.” His eyes meet mine again, but now they’ve shuttered and gone dark. “I saw what happened by the gates. at’s mild compared to what they’ll do next.”

I’ve seen the same atrocities. Heard the same stories. My heart utters in my chest. I think of Mistress Kendall and all she lost. I think of the dozens of other families we bring medicine to, of all the people who will die without the medicine we bring. “We can’t stop, Wes. People . . . people count on us.”

His eyes close. “I’m not talking about forever. But perhaps—” “No!”

“Tessa—”

“We can’t!” I say ercely. “We’d be sentencing them to death ourselves! We

—”

He uses the treble hook to jerk me forward, and his hand slaps over my mouth. “You are aware they’ve doubled the night patrol, yes?”

I nod at him, wide-eyed. He lowers his hand.

“We can’t stop,” I whisper, though my voice is no less adamant. “We can’t.” “We can.” His eyes blaze into mine. “We can’t help anyone if we’re dead.

Rebellion won’t stop the fevers.”

I swallow and think of my parents. My father did everything he could to make sure everyone had access to medicine. It led to their deaths, so maybe that should be a warning to me.

It’s not. It’s a legacy. “If you don’t want to go, then stay here.” I jerk my treble hook out of his hand. “I have people to help.”

“Tessa!” he hisses behind me, but I don’t stop.

My throat is tight with so much emotion. Anger. Fear. Worry. Disappointment.

I hear nothing, but he suddenly appears at my side, as quick and agile as a cat. “You’re going to get us both killed,” he says under his breath.

“If you’re so scared, go home.”

“I am not scared.” He catches my arm and hauls me to a stop.

I look up into his eyes, ecked with sparks from the starlight. “When there are calls for revolution,” I say to him, “we should be riding at the front, not hiding in the shadows.”

His voice is so rough. “All we do is hide, Tessa.”

“Maybe it’s time we stopped. We don’t know who these Benefactors are . . . but maybe they’re onto something good. Something right.”

He’s so silent, so still, his eyes intent on mine.

“Maybe it’s time to make a dierence another way,” I whisper, because everything feels so dangerous to say aloud.

When he says nothing, I li a hand to touch the edge of his mask. He’s so still, especially when the tip of my nger slides under the edge.

Just when I think he’s going to let me tug it free, his eyes ick open and he ducks his face away. His voice is low and rough when he says, “Go back to

the workshop. Heat the water. I’ll make the run.” “Wes—”

“I’m faster. Don’t look at me like that. You know I am.” He pulls a small pack from his bag and presses it into my hand. “Here. ere’s a bit le from yesterday. I found some extra roseseed oil, too. Start the water and measure what you can. If we’re quick, we can bottle the elixirs and make our rounds before daybreak.”

His eyes are boring into mine, so I nod quickly.

I close my ngers around the pack and take a step back. I can’t tell if he’s angry or determined or we’re both just fooling ourselves into thinking we can make a dierence.

“Go, then,” I say, and my voice almost breaks.

Something in his eyes fractures. “Lord, Tessa. Don’t you understand? I’m not afraid for me. I’m afraid for you.”

My heart is pounding so hard I have to press a hand to my chest.

Without warning, he strides forward, catches my waist in both hands, then presses his mouth to mine.

For a moment I’m breathless and startled, but my body quickly catches up. I yield to his touch, soening in the circle of his arms. A re lights in my belly, racing through my veins until I’m warm all over. He’s solid and he’s strong and he’s Wes, and I’ve imagined this moment so many times, but my imagination never did it justice.

Minutes—hours—days before I’m ready, he pulls away, his eyes full of stars again. He taps me on the nose. “Mind your mettle and keep your head down. I’ll be back in an hour.”

I’m pressing a hand to my mouth, my thoughts spinning. For all my talk of riding at the front of the revolution, I want to call him right back to nd some decent shadows for the foreseeable future.

But his treble hook is already spinning free of his hand, whistling through the air to catch the edge of the wall. Without a backward glance, Wes is over the top, and I’m on my own.

 

 

I light the re and balance my scales, but my thoughts are still in the woods, remembering the feel of his lips against mine over and over again, the sound

of his voice as he said, Lord, Tessa, before stepping forward to pull me against him. Or the way he said, I’m not afraid for me, while holding my gaze so steadily.

He still ducked away when I went to move his mask—but he kissed me. I’ve been tangled up with fury and regret and fear since the riots outside the gates to the Royal Sector, and maybe I still should be, but . . . Wes. Oh, Wes. His hands were so warm and his voice was so lovely and deep and his mouth was just . . . I sigh. All my talk of revolution and riding at the front, and now I just want to spin in circles while I mix my medicines.

But we’re still taking action. We’re not backing down from that horrible king and his awful, cruel brother. We’re saving the people who need saving.

Fight back, one of the prisoners said.

We are. I’m not strong enough to rush a stage or attack the king or take down a patrolman in the woods, but I know how to save lives. Wes said that all we do is hide, and he’s right, but what we do while we’re hiding is what matters. What we do together is what matters.

Together. I press a hand to my chest to keep my heart from uttering.

e kettle begins to whistle, and I take it off the re just in time, pouring it carefully into the vials I’ve lined up.

In the distance, the alarm rings out in the Royal Sector, and I freeze in place. I set the kettle down and move to the window of our workshop. I can see the lights from here when they burst over the edge of the wall.

It’s ne. He’s ne. He really is faster than I am, no matter how much I don’t want to admit it. ey’re looking for smugglers everywhere, so anyone could have tripped the alarm. He was ne the other day, so he’s surely ne tonight.

I swipe suddenly damp hands against my homespun skirts and go back to the table. When I pick up the kettle, the lid rattles, and I realize I’m shaking.

I take a long breath and steady myself. He’ll be back any minute, his usual cocky grin on his face. He’ll poke me in the side and roll his eyes and tell me to hurry so we can grind more powder from the petals he’s stolen. We’ll spare a moment to think of whatever poor soul was caught, and we’ll thank our lucky stars that we have another night together, helping people.

Together. My heart utters again. is time, however, dread crowds its way into my chest. How long has it been? An hour? Or not quite? e alarms continue to blare in the Royal Sector, the lights spinning as they seek their prey.

Wes. Oh, Wes.

e elixirs have blended. I carefully pour the liquid into the vials and stopper them closed. e alarms fall silent.

I can hear my heart racing. I move to the door, my ears straining against the cool, early morning silence. Wes never makes a sound, so I expect him to jump out from behind a tree, or leap off the roof, or something equally foolish that will make me startle and then laugh and then punch him in the gut.

He doesn’t.

My stomach is a pit of fear now. I can’t draw a deep breath. I grip tightly to the doorframe until my ngers hurt.

Between the trees, the rst hint of sunlight breaks the horizon. My throat closes up. I can’t breathe at all.

It’s been more than an hour. A lot more.

My ngers feel numb, and I can’t tell if it’s from the doorframe or the gasping breaths that are ghting their way into my lungs. I dive back into the workshop. I need to go aer him. I need to nd him. ey take them to the prison rst. To the Hold. I can get him out. I can—I need—I want—I need

Light catches my eyes through the window, and a cry breaks free of my chest. Sunrise is happening, a new day beginning, heedless of my panic. My hand is already wrapped up in the rope of my treble hook, my pack falling over my shoulder.

Mind your mettle, Tessa.

A tear squeezes free of my eye, catching in the mask. I freeze in the doorway. I can’t go out like this. Not in the sunlight.

I can’t go aer him.

I drop in the doorway of the workshop. Something in my chest gives way, and suddenly I’m crying into my skirts, shuddering against the doorway.

He’s going to nd me like this, and I’ll never hear the end of it. I’ll take his teasing, and gladly, if he could just appear.

Please, Wes. I don’t realize I’ve whispered the words until I hear my shaking voice. Please, Wes.

He doesn’t appear. Sunlight streaks through the woods.

I can’t keep sitting here in the doorway. We’re in a remote part of the forest, but hunters and trappers aren’t completely foreign in this area.

I jerk the hat off and tuck it down in my bag. I use the mask and some of the boiled water to scrub the kohl off my cheeks and eyes. I rebraid my hair and straighten my skirts, then tuck away the medicine, the bowls, and the kettle under the oorboards.

Please, Wes.

I hesitate in the doorway. Nothing.

Maybe he had to run back to his forge. Maybe he couldn’t risk coming this way. Tomorrow morning he’ll be waiting with a good story for me.

“What was that?” he’ll say, teasing. “I was right? We should have waited a few days?”

My throat refuses to loosen. My chest is caught in a vise grip.

I can’t stay here. Mistress Solomon will be waiting for me. Karri will know something is wrong. My eyes feel raw.

I walk, forcing my pace to remain sedate. Just a girl out for a walk in the Wilds, heading to work early. No one of importance. I keep my ears open for the night patrol, but the city is beginning to come to life around me as I near more populated areas, and suddenly, I’m not at risk.

A woman and her daughter are hanging laundry between two trees, and I catch a few of their words as I pass. e girl shakes out a pair of trousers and hands them up to her mother. “Da said the prince is going to leave the body hanging there until he catches them all.”

“He can hang up all he likes,” says the woman. “You keep your eyes on your tasks. ose outlaws have nothing to do with us.”

“Yes, Ma.”

e prince is going to leave the body hanging there. “You lost, girl?”

I jerk my head up. I’ve stopped, my hand braced against a tree. e woman is peering at me. I need to keep walking. I need to get out of here.

e prince caught an outlaw?” I say, and my voice breaks.

“It’s none of our business,” she says curtly, but her daughter steps forward and says, “Yes! My da said they hung him from the gates, but he wouldn’t let me see—”

I run. My feet dig into the path as I sprint for the gates to the Royal Sector, skidding around trees. I can’t breathe. I can’t stop. People are staring, looking

up in surprise as I tear through the Wilds. Someone is going to grab me, to stop me, to announce that I’m not where I’m supposed to be.

No one does. And suddenly, I’m there, at the gates.

e girl was right. ere’s a body, hanging by its neck, the head hanging crooked. e face is bloated and purple, the clothing dark.

ere’s a mask across his face. A hat I know so well. A pack I’ve seen a hundred times strapped across his chest.

A treble hook hangs from the rope knotted around his hand, swinging gently in the breeze.

A dagger hilt sticks out from each eye socket. Blood has soaked into the mask, which means they did it while he was alive.

Trapped between the hilts is a blooming Moon ower.

is can’t be real. is can’t be real.

I don’t want to keep staring, but I can’t stop.

I’m not breathing. I can’t breathe. My heart needs to stop beating. I need to stop feeling.

He didn’t want to go. He was right. It was too risky. He went for me.

e gate guards have taken notice of me, and one of them calls, “Guess he won’t be making it home for supper, will he, girl?”

ey all laugh.

My ngers curl into sts. I want to hit the guards with every ounce of my strength and fury. I want to light them on re. I want to burn the palace to the ground. I want to steal every petal of every Moon ower in Kandala and watch the elites wither and die from the fevers.

I want to put daggers in the eyes of the king and his brother. Mind your mettle, Tessa.

It’s like his voice is in my head, and I choke on a sob. One of the guards must hear, because he peels away from the gate.

I need to run. Wes would want me to run.

at thought spurs me into action. I dig my feet into the trail again and run as fast and as far as I can, leaving a path of tears behind me.

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