I'm trembling so hard I'm at risk of falling over, and my breath does not come easy. The world around me is as white and blank as a piece of bleached parchment, offering neither warmth, nor shelter, nor direction. I don't know where I am. I don't understand what's happening. I'm cold, I'm in pain, and it's only through sheer effort of will that I don't double over, sick with fear.
I don't understand anything I see, or anything I feel, except that I know I'm not where I'm supposed to be. Like I haven't been for a very long time. That knowledge is so certain it's an instinct, buried deep enough in my heart that I couldn't question it if I wanted to. I turn with fearful eyes, searching desperately for a familiar sight – anything but this Qaen forsaken whiteness. Something to tell me where I am, something to tell me where I should be. Some sign that I'm still, I don't know, alive?
Alive or not, there's nothing here. Nothing but me and my shadow, like a long, dark stain on the ground behind me. I swallow thickly and close my eyes, fighting back a wave of panic-induced nausea.
I don't understand!
When I open my eyes again, I catch a sudden movement on my periphery. Hope rises like a flame in my chest, but sputters and dies in the next breath. The movement is a wave, rippling the blank landscape as it races toward me. Every nerve in my body tingles in anticipation of the impact, knowing before I do just how bad this is going to hurt.
I turn with a gasp and scramble away from it, my shadow running before me. But I make it no more than two steps before it hits. There's no real impact, no physical contact, but pain sears through me as though it was fire. It is unlike anything I have ever felt before, except I know that's not true even as I think it.
The pain drives blurred images into my mind like cold iron spikes. Memories or visions. I don't know which. I see a large, proud man, with eyes the colour of rust. He stares at me with a hatred so deep and personal I can't even begin to fathom it. I see him raising his hand and—
A ragged scream tears free of my throat as the searing pain sends me crumpling to my knees. But the ground doesn't catch me. I fall through my shadow and into the dark lands below.
I slam into ground covered in ash, and dust, and when I find my breath again I choke on it. The ruins of a building lie in shambles around me, and the sky beyond the shattered roof is obscured by a shroud of red clouds.
"Warden of the Watch…." A whisper in the darkness around me. The sound crackles, like burning bone.
It drives me to my feet, a hand pressed to my stomach as I whirl, trying to find the source. "Who's there?" I call, voice shaking. "Please! Who's there?"
I turn again and my eyes fall on a grey stone slab, unremarkable but for the fact it's doused in fire. Blue fire. My eyes widen and my heart thumps in my chest as I stare at the flames. I take a step forward, a hand unconsciously extended, but a shriek from behind me breaks me free of the fire's spell.
I whirl to face my attacker, raising my hands to defend myself, but the gesture is useless. She's as indistinct as a shadow, and when she moves it seems the world creaks and groans around her, struggling to maintain its shape and solidity. She's got four feet of lightless, obsidian blade in his hand, and she buries it in my stomach before I can even understand how close she is.
I gasp and my hands clutch instinctively at the blade. It burns my skin to touch it, and I can feel myself coming undone beneath its chill. My legs give out and I fall backwards, towards the altar and its blue fire, but she catches my shoulder and wrenches me closer, driving the blade in deeper. She smiles hungrily into my wide eyes.
She looks...so familiar...
She looks...like me...
"Your blood," she whispers, "will open the Seal."
"Wake up, kid!"
I snap upright with a terrified cry. My hands fly to my stomach to grab the blade, or stop the bleeding, but there's no blade, and I'm not bleeding. I struggle to catch my breath as I blink uncomprehendingly at my intact stomach, then around at the familiar chaos of my room. "What?"
"My sentiments exactly," notes a gruff voice. It's the same one that snapped me out of what my addled brain is slowly coming to realize was a dream. I turn to look at where Bruiser stands in the door, his hairy torso blocking my view of the hallway beyond. He's got his usual unfriendly scowl securely in place, but it's marred by the concerned angle of his bushy eyebrows. "You all right, kid? You're late getting up. The gallery's been open for an hour."
The memory of my face buried in a roiling mass of shadow wilts beneath the simple reality of being late for work and getting docked an hour's pay. I don't care how concerned his eyebrows are, Bruiser's a miser and the no-work-no-coin line is a hard one.
"Dammit, Bruiser!" I cry, throwing the blankets aside and leaping out of bed. "Why didn't you wake me sooner?!" I am never going to be able to pay Melody back at this rate.
"Don't swear at me, girl, I'm not your nursemaid." He scowls at me until I wave him off in irritation, acknowledging the point so I can return to my hunt for clothes. He watches me scramble like a hawk watches a rabbit, and there is something uncharacteristically dark in his expression. "Must have been some nightmare."
"Don't want to talk about it." I wriggle my way into the nearest tunic and decide the pants I slept in are clean enough. "Where's my scarf?" The contents of my room become an airborne hazard as I search for it.
"For Kyn's sake!" Bruiser cries, ducking a wild flying boot. "Forget the scarf! It's not going to kill you to go a day without it." His irritation is frayed with resignation, though. He already knows my response – probably has it memorized.
I straighten abruptly, brandishing the other boot like a holy relic. "That scarf," I say sternly, "was a boon from the Dukae when I left the Lostlands! I don't care what you, or any other Lucien thinks about it! You don't disrespect a boon from the Fae!"
He gives me a flat look and points accusingly. "This is why people call you Changeling."
I hate that name, so I ignore him. "I'm not going down until I find it. Did you put it somewhere?"
"Where would I have put it?" he demands, affronted. "It's your boon." I glare accusingly at him until he rolls his eyes. "I'm going to guess it's on the back of your door. Where you always put it." He grabs the knob and takes his leave, slamming the door behind him. "Oh look!" he calls from the hallway. His confidence is disgusting, but my scarf swings condemningly from the hook. I make a face at it.
"Watch the shop!" the burly businessman commands as his heavy footfalls tromp their way down the stairs.
I snatch the length of forest coloured cloth from the hook, more annoyed than I have a right to be, and give it a shake to straighten it out. "Tonight," I tell it as I do a quick check to make sure my petulance didn't tear the embroidery, "I am slinging you over the back of my chair. Just to prove him wrong." I wrap it around my neck and let the loose end trail down my back. I grab my clunky boots and drag them on, and then I'm out the door and down the stairs two at a time.
Hope the boss left me some breakfast. He's not as big as he is because he starves himself.
But he's not one to let others starve, either, and there is a plate heaped high with eggs, sausage and some fresh toast waiting for me. I never should have doubted him. It's a little cold, but the man is an artist. It could be two weeks stale and it would still put every other breakfast in Lucity to shame.
I attack the plate with all the fervour of an angel who's found a demon amongst her flock. A piece of toast falls prey to my teeth, rent viciously in half for the crime of being smothered in jam. Grinning around a mouth full of bread I grab the nearest fork with my free hand and impale a sausage with it. But the simple motion prompts a flashback that slams into my head so hard I'm left breathless:
She's got four feet of lightless, obsidian blade in her hand, and she buries it in my stomach. I gasp and my hands clutch instinctively at the blade.
My gut twists around the imaginary weapon and I drop the fork to catch myself on the table. I put the devastated remains of the toast back down on the plate and rub my eyes to clear the image.
The Dukae used to say that sometimes the Goddesses can speak to us through dreams. Fae, in fact, don't dream unless the Qaen are sending them a message. It was very confusing for them when I would talk about my dreams, which happened almost every night and involved the sorts of things most kids dream about. Palaces made of sweets, big scary monsters with a thousand arms and mouths for eyes, flying high over the trees. That kind of thing. They weren't messages, just dreams.
Brandaeryn figured it out before I did, and oh what fun he had. Spiteful little imp. Would have happily given him a message of my own, care of my fist, if it wouldn't have meant incurring the Dukae's considerable wrath.
If the Qaen never bothered to speak to me in dreams before, there's no way they're starting now. I stayed out too late last night at the Crown and Scale listening to the bard tell Makan stories. That's all. You hear enough tales about armies of the dead laying waste to a city, or the things that happen to people who go looking for Makan secrets and your brain starts to do weird things all on its own. Small wonder I dreamt about a monster killing me.
But my eyes wander up to the Qaensknot above the door and I can practically hear the shadow whispering in my ear again. Warden of the Watch.
A bell rings in the gallery as someone enters from the main door, and I shake myself free of my thoughts with a sharp inhalation. A customer. I am more relieved than I care to say. I turn from the Qaensknot and offer an apologetic nod to my breakfast as I abandon it. Suddenly I'm not really all that hungry.
"Hello," I call as I push through the kitchen door and into the gallery, "welcome to Bruiser's Shooting Gallery and Archery Goods Sto—Melody!" A young woman about my age is leaning casually on the other side of the counter. She's wearing her customary riding skirt and blouse. The small pin affixed to the breast identifies her as an employee of the Sunborn Stables up at the Castle. She's wearing her long red hair loose today, which means she's got the day off – otherwise it would be in a more practical braid.
She offers me a smile that pretends to be flirtatious, and it sort of is, except it's hiding a pointed question. "Lije," she greets me with a half-nod. "I haven't seen you in forever! A lady might wonder whether she is being avoided!"
I debate whether dodging, flattery, or begging is the better plan, but ultimately reject them all in favour of the truth. I offer a smile of my own and lean up against the counter. "It's not the lady, but the lady's book I'm avoiding," I confess. "The lady is charming, witty and endlessly entertaining company. The lady's book is a foul liar, and I regret that it must lay between us."
She draws herself up and presses an offended hand to her breast. "I'll not have you speaking such ill words against my faithful book!" she cries, a pitch-perfect imitation of the way the young nobles crow and cluck at each other in the square when they want to be noticed. She's better at this than I am. "You take that back, you cad, or I swear on my mother's name that you shall pay the blood price!"
"Oh, I quiver, my lady! I quiver!" I assure her, affecting an expression of the utmost contempt. "But were I to take back my words you would make a liar of me, as surely as that book lies! And what worth would my mother's name have then?!"
A giggle slips through her otherwise rock-hard composure, but she reigns it in and gestures dramatically. "Name these lies, foul snake, that I may take each from out your hide!"
I hold up a finger with no small amount of flare. "First is the lie that I owe the Lady funds in the amount of three hundred and five knots. The book has conveniently forgotten that this humble Daughter of Lucien purchased the Lady lunch and supper on the unfortunate day two weeks ago when her wallet was stolen!"
She pulls the offending book from the bag she wears across her shoulders, and flips it open to the badly scrawled pages that are dedicated to me. "Ah, just so," she says with grave seriousness. "The Lady will correct the amount owed to two hundred and ninety nine gold pieces."
I tip my doubtlessly fancy, but ultimately imaginary hat. "The Daughter is much obliged."
"Though the lady notes the Daughter did not exactly splurge on either meal."
"The Daughter, I might remind the lady, is in debt for a reason. Unlike the young nobles who splurge with their parents' money, and have to borrow to splurge again, we Daughters of Lucien only borrow when business is slow, and the ends are refusing to meet."
"The book cares little for the wherefores and whys of the numbers recorded therein," she notes primly, snapping it shut and putting it back in her bag. "Only the balance matters."
I give her my best grin. "And the lady?"
She snorts in a very unladylike fashion. "The lady has an unfortunate weak spot for friends with puppy-dog eyes, and pretty horses." She abruptly drops the act and moulds her lips into something resembling a pout. She leans forward on the counter to cup her cheek in her palm. "You know," she says, a dangerously crafty glint in her eyes, "if you would just let me ride her – even just once – I would happily take a good sized chunk right off the top of that debt."
I give her an apologetic shake of my head. "It's not up to me," I remind her. "If she won't let you ride her, you don't get to ride her. And she doesn't much care that her warm bed and clean hay are going to ensure I never quite escape that book of yours. You are both heartless. And she's a creature born of Faerie magic – what's your excuse?"
"It's the world that's heartless, Lije," she tells me with a sigh. "I'm just trying to keep up."
"Did you actually come to collect today, or did you want to play?" I ask, changing the subject.
Or trying to. "I came to talk to you because you've been avoiding me. I saw Bruiser leaving the shop, so I knew you'd be a captive audience." She winks. "Also, I wanted to give you an early birthday present."
"Melody, my birthday's not for months yet," I point out.
"Exactly," she says. "Most of my customers don't get advance warning of certain dates. But perhaps I am not as heartless as you think."
I have to think about it for a minute before I realize what she's getting at. "Seven years," I say with a sigh.
"Seven years," she agrees. "Those were the original terms of the agreement, and they're up in a few months."
I groan and let my head sink into my hands. "So…just how favorable a deal did your dad cut me back then?"
"There is a reason my mother is in charge of the Ranch now," she says simply. "And you're not a homeless eleven-year-old kid anymore, either."
I force myself to raise my head and meet her eyes, despite the unwelcome weight of the thick noose tightening around my neck. "What are the odds of getting to negotiate with you?"
"Slim to none." She gives me a sympathetic pat on my cheek. "My mum knows me too well for that."
"She's going to eat me," I say.
"She really is," Melody agrees. "Especially if you don't get this debt cleared off my books before then." Her expression softens. "Talk to Bruiser, Lije. I know he'd help you if you asked."
"No," I say, which is what I say every time this comes up. "He's helped me enough, all right? I won't ask anything more of him."
"All right, all right," she says, pulling away from the counter. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a red knot, tossing it to me. "Hand me my bow and turn this thing on. I need to practice."
I smile thankfully to acknowledge the change of subject, then turn to pull her preferred bow down off the rack. "Still hoping to beat your mum at the Harvest Festival?"
"You say hoping like there's a doubt." She frowns accusingly at me. "You haven't told her, have you?"
"Why would I tell her anything?" I respond, handing the bow back across. "You've made it very clear what would happen to me if I do." I nod my head at the chalkboard where we record the highest scores for competition and bragging rights. "You're going to have some stiff competition, though."
Melody glances over at the board, but doesn't immediately see what I'm getting at. When she finally moves her eyes to the HARD column, she blinks in surprise. Where once the names Lije, Argent, and Molly vied for top spots under Bruiser's (whose score is always just slightly to the wrong side of beatable), five new names sit – Amplissa, Indiga, Jinni, Helnidi, and Aliza.
Melody's brow creases. "What kind of names are those?" she demands.
"Shardeni," I answer with no small amount of relish. I am so very rarely at the forefront of exciting happenings, that I tend to enjoy it when I'm the first in the know. "They stopped in here yesterday on their way up to Castle Sunborn. Those scores are at least half-again the ones that used to be up there, your mom's included. I've never seen shooting like that."
She gives me a dark look. "So what?"
"So they're probably here on some diplomatic mission," I say. "Or Treaty negotiations or something. Which means they might be here for a while, which means maybe they'll shoot in the festival competition."
"Well you don't have to sound so happy about it," she snaps. "Maybe they'll have a separate category for them or something. Since they're so amazing." She glares at the mechanical monstrosity that is the main attraction in the shooting gallery without speaking for a moment. "Besides," she adds, nodding as though to affirm something for herself. "It's not about winning it's about destroying my mother. As long as I place higher than her I don't care. Put it on hard."
"Melody, you're not—okay, on hard it is," I say, turning hastily to the controls to avoid her fiery glare.
Bruiser's machine creaks and groans to life. Targets begin to pop up and down, and slide back and forth and in and out of sight behind various obstacles. The machine picks up speed slowly and we wait for the sound of the bell that means the game has begun. The mechanical behemoth makes unholy sounds on hard, and something unpleasant crawls into my gut. It's like a cousin to the way I imagine the world must have sounded around that homicidal shadow from my dream when it moved. If it had a voice to scream, or I had ears to hear it.
"Hey, Melody," I say, swallowing thickly. "Maybe I don't have your three hundred knots, but let me take you out for lunch today. I promise I'll splurge."
She raises an eyebrow at me, detecting something in my face or my voice, but she doesn't question it. "All right," she says. Then the bell goes off and she turns her eyes front again and draws her first arrow.
I just really don't feel like being alone today.
A hand the size of a frying pan catches my scarf and hauls me back into the kitchen. "Where are you going?"
I make exaggerated choking noises until he releases the scarf. Only after making a show of loosening the long cloth from around my neck and giving him a dirty look do I respond. "It's lunchtime." He's got a long package under his arm and I do my best to avoid looking at it, because I've played this game before. "I'm going to lunch."
"No you're not," he answers. As though the conversation is over.
Ha ha, Bruiser. That's funny. You're a funny guy.
"See, now that you've said that, one of us has to be a liar," I tell him. "Because I promised Melody I'd take her out for lunch. And you're saying that I'm not going to do that. So I think, maybe, the best plan is for you to take that back, so neither one of us has to be a liar."
He holds out the package, which is a little over four feet long and narrow, but I still refuse to acknowledge its existence. "I need you to run an errand. Make it up to Melody another time."
"It damages the reputation of this fine establishment when you make liars out of your employees. Is that what you want?"
He shoves the package into my arms hard enough that I grunt. "I have one employee. And if she wants to remain employed she'll learn to prioritize her job over her personal life."
I roll my eyes and groan dramatically. "Bruiser, you're very seriously ruining my life right now."
"No," he says, achieving whole new levels of grim between his expression and his tone, "I'm not. But if you don't take that package straight to the castle and deliver it into the Princess' hands, I will."
That stops the fit I was preparing to throw dead in its tracks. "The Princess!" I gape at him. "Princess Oriana?!"
"Are you aware of some other Princess that I'm not?"
I turn my stunned expression onto the package, holding it out with a renewed respect. "What the Hell could you possibly have that the Princess wants? Does she even know you're sending her this? Am I going to get arrested when I walk in there? Are you trying to get rid of me or something?"
"Kid, if I wanted to be rid of you, I would have put an arrow through your skull a long time ago. Stop asking questions and do as you're told."
"What's in it?"
"Is it for you?" he demands. "Then none of your business."
"You seriously want me to bring this to the Princess? Like in person?"
"Yes." His expression is sour, like this wasn't his idea and he thinks it's a terrible one. "A guard will meet you in the main entrance hall and escort you to her. Make sure you're behaved, understand me? And fix yourself up some before you see her. Brush your hair or something." He scowls at me as he looks me up and down and apparently decides it's a lost cause. I'm going to embarrass him no matter what he says now.
His faith warms my heart, it really does.
"Bruiser, how many years ago did you take me in?" I demand flatly. "Give me that room and a job?"
His scowl is undiminished. "Six."
"And a half," I stress. "Are you seriously telling me that after six and a half years you don't trust me with something as simple as a delivery?"
"I don't trust you to lace your boots most days," he grunts. "Stow that sarcasm before you get to the throne room. I swear to the Holy Three, kid, if you make me look bad I will turn that scarf into a noose and hang you with it."
"Fine," I say, "but I'm going for lunch with Melody after."
"Take the afternoon for all I care," he growls, turning away from me and stomping back toward the gallery. "But if I catch wind you screwed this up, don't bother coming back."
"Oh ye of little faith."
"See, it's funny," says Melody, "because I thought before meant, you know, before. And it was after that meant after. I think you might have them mixed up."
"What Bruiser doesn't know won't kill me," I reply with a shrug. "Besides, whatever he says, I somehow doubt the Crown Freaking Princess of all of Qaensgate is just holding her breath until the nobody kid from the Archery Shop arrives with the mundane package of I don't even know what from the nobody guy that runs the place. I get that it's important to him, but there's no way it's important to her."
"I don't know." She frowns as she picks a slice of cheese out of her sandwich and eats it. "You don't think it's weird?"
"That after all this time, out of the blue, Bruiser's got business at the castle? And not just, you know, generically the castle. I mean, I technically count as generically the castle."
"Why is it weird?" I respond. "How many hundreds of people go through those gates every day? They've all got business up there."
"Yeah, but not with Oriana. Lije, it's been two years since my dad got me a job in the castle's stables, and I've never even seen the woman. And now you've got a personal invite right into the throne room?"
"The invite is technically Bruiser's," I point out. "Maybe she's got a thing for archery. I mean, he's nobody special as far as royalty goes, but he's the best damn bowyer and fletcher in Lucity. Half the palace guard come to him for their personal gear. Maybe word got back to her and she had something commissioned."
"So why the secrecy around what's in the package?" She pops a liberated tomato into her mouth. "And why is Bruiser sending you?"
"Because he's a great, hairy, indelicate brute. And I am young, charming, and impossible to ignore."
"I'll give you that last one."
"Maybe he hopes she'll be positively smitten with me and marry me on the spot, thus freeing him from his dull life of trying to keep me from dying through my own ineptitude."
"Hmm," says Melody consideringly, "assuming she temporarily forgets the part where you can't give her an heir and goes for that…don't forget that if she's got a dowry of any kind, three hundred knots of it are mine."
"Two hundred and ninety-nine. Minus whatever lunch was today. I splurged, I'd like that noted in the book."
"It shall be noted," she promises, but without her usual flare. She pulls a piece of beef from the sandwich and considers it for a moment, a frown playing across her face. "You know," she says slowly, "you can invite me out to lunch sometime and have it not be about your debt."
I blink at her in surprise. "But…I thought you wanted to keep things business?"
She heaves a disgruntled sigh and flicks a piece of the meat at me. "You're so thick sometimes it kills me," she says dryly. "I knew as soon as I said that it was going to be a problem. Let me translate it for you. My darling Lije, I like men. In a romantic sense. This does not mean that I cannot also like you. In a non-romantic sense. When I said 'keep it business' that was code for 'I don't wish to date you.' Not 'pretend like everything is about your debt so we can keep hanging out.'" She gives me a dull look. "We can keep hanging out without the debt excuse. We're still friends."
"Really?" I say, relieved beyond anything I have words for. "Seriously?"
She arches a scarlet brow over a pale green eye. "Do you see me spending this much time with everyone who owes me money?"
I stare at her for a minute, afraid I might be misinterpreting her words. The hesitation, naturally, costs me. Before I can gather my wits somebody shouts her name and she turns away from me to look. A young man with hair the colour of freshly tilled soil waves at her as he approaches. He's wearing the livery of the city guard.
"Hey," he says. "Lydia asked me to tell you not to come in tomorrow. Essential staff only."
Melody blinks in surprise. "What? Why?"
He shrugs. "Dunno. The call went out this morning for any guards willing to earn some extra pay to report for duty at the castle. They're locking the gates at sunset – no word on when they'll open them again. If you see anyone who lives on the castle grounds, pass the word along? I'd hate for them to get stuck outside."
"Sure thing, Liam. Thanks for the heads up!"
"No problem!" he says. "Sorry I can't chat – trying to round up some of the others I know would be up for the extra shift. Sorry to interrupt your lunch!"
We wave his apologies off and he takes his leave with a polite nod. "Does he owe you money?" I ask.
"Last thing you want in a siege is your city guards turning on you," Melody says wryly. "They're all very well paid. Maybe you should join them."
"What, and leave my life of danger and excitement? What would I do, if I wasn't waiting for customers to come in and hold the bow wrong and then accuse me of rigging the game when they miss every shot? I couldn't live without their constant screaming for the manager and demanding their money back! I would die of boredom!"
She grins at me. "You should probably go," she says. "Whatever's up at the castle, it sounds serious. Deliver your package before you run out of time."
"He said sunset," I argue. "It's only mid-afternoon. I've got plenty of time yet. Besides, you said something before Mr. Pleasant Guard Man interrupted us, and I'd hate to leave your company before I've got closure on that." She cocks her head to the side in an expectant way, and I grin at her. "Don't record any of this in the book. Lunch is on me today."
Supper time comes and goes and I've made approximately zero progress in my quest to get arrested for being scruffy looking in the Princess' presence. I have, however,unexpectedly managed to get myself two really good meals, an afternoon off, and an unexpected reprieve from what I was afraid was going to be a permanent awkward space between me and the best friend I've ever had. So I'm not really feeling bad about my choices.
I can't even begrudge my sunburn, that's how good my mood is. I glance at myself in the bakery window and press my fingers tentatively against the skin of my nose. It looks more like a tomato than an olive right now. That should make an impression on the princess.
"...rumours of a Shardeni uprising," the baker is saying as Melody pays for a loaf of bread for her father and a couple of pastries for us.
That penetrates the happy fog around my head. I join her at the counter. "Sorry, I missed the first part of that. What's this about the Shardeni?"
"Almost everyone's talking about it," the baker says, encouraged by the extra attention. "Haven't you seen them in town?" He leans forward on the counter in a smug way. "Why I've seen at least two of them myself." I open my mouth to outdo him by a significant margin, but Melody steps on my toe until I shut my mouth. "They were just walking around like they've already forgotten there was a war! Well, I tell you what, the rest of us haven't forgotten. So they'd best just watch themselves around here."
"The war was almost twenty years ago," Melody reminds the baker, smiling politely. "They were probably here to discuss the treaties. Or maybe they were actually just tourists."
"Oh to be young again and have that much faith in the goodness at the heart of all," the baker says with a sigh. "You can't trust those women, young miss. You take that from me. They're thieves and murderers, and I'd bet my last biscuit it's for them the castle's shutting its gates this evening."
"For a handful for Shardeni?" I demand, trying not to make a face at him.
The baker scoffs. "Everyone knows they're just a scouting party. The real uprising will come after."
Melody recognizes the intent in my face and steps on my foot again, but I just can't let that one go. "You know," I say, trying not to wince as she grinds her heel down harder, "the Shardeni can't actually uprise. Rise up. They don't answer to the Sunborn and they're not legally part of the Queendom. They're a sovereign nation."
The baker sniffs at me. "Well what is it, then, if not an uprising?"
"I think the technical word would be war," I say, "but I bow to your superior experience in that area."
Melody shoves a pastry into my mouth and I have to turn away as the icing sugar coats the back of my throat and sends me into a coughing fit. "Besides," she adds sweetly, interposing between me and him, "they'd lock down the whole city in that case, not just the castle. Have you heard any rumours from beyond Lucity? If the Shardeni were invading, we'd have refugees from the towns and villages on the way here. Or reports of burned farms or massacred families. The Shardeni don't play at war."
The baker is mollified to an extent by her tone, but remains offended that she is arguing at all. "Well, it's that or demons," he says shortly.
"Demons?!" I say. The exclamation prompts another choking fit, but I continue despite it. "There haven't been demons around for decades. They were all sealed away in the Great War!"
"Exactly," says the baker, as though that is all the proof anyone should need of the coming Shardeni invasion. Because clearly the only two options are those.
"There are plenty still left, they're just further south," Melody corrects us both. "Why do you say demons?"
"Well, that's the other rumour, is why." The baker shrugs. "But it's so farfetched it's not worth repeating except for a laugh. Just some old farmer putting fool ideas into the heads of the gullible. You know what the rural folk are like. Too superstitious for anyone's good."
Something in Melody's eyes glints in a hard way – her mother owns the Double M Ranch a half day's ride outside the city and technically counts as "rural folk" – and it's suddenly my turn to interpose. "Why? What did he say?"
The baker gives me a disdainful look and sighs in a put-upon way. "Old fool claims he saw a party of demon spawn and puppets just off the Queensway, headed toward Lucity. That's what I hear, at least. Anyone with any sense in their head knows he's just telling Makan stories."
But Melody doesn't look like she's hearing a Makan story. Her eyes are narrowed, her expression calculating. "The
biggest graveyard in Lucity is on the castle grounds."
"You don't think it's true, do you?" I demand, turning to her incredulously. "Melody, there's no way. How could a party of demons get this far north without someone spotting them sooner? And why wouldn't the castle just trust the city guards to shoot them down from the walls?"
"It's foolishness, lass, that's all. Even the changeling agrees," the baker assures her. I stiffen and only Melody's weight on my foot keeps me from reacting. "We've more to fear from flesh and blood wild women, than we do from creatures no one's seen in decades. It's the Shardeni that's got them all wound up at the castle. They'll deal with it before the sun rises and those gates will be open again before you know it." He pats her hand in a condescending way.
The concern in her face falls away too fast for the transition to be real. "You're probably right," she says, with a smile that the baker believes. She takes her loaf of bread and starts moving for the door. "Thank you for the bread and the sweets! I'll pass your hello along to my father!"
I follow her out as the baker calls his goodbyes, catching her arm to slow her down. "Melody, what is it?" I demand. "Do you know something I don't?"
"All I know is that things aren't adding up," she says grimly. The fact that she didn't take advantage of the opening I
left her worries me more than anything else. "And I'm not liking the tally of the things that are."
"Melody," I say gently, "that guy is obnoxious, but he's right about the demons. No one's seen them—."
"We haven't seen them," she corrects me sharply. "Here in Lucity. But you travel south, or west and you start to hear rumours, and then rumours become something more solid. They weren't all locked away, and all it takes is one to start waking up more of them."
We stare at each other for a long moment, each of us considering the implications. She reaches out to squeeze my hand. "Call Gale, Lije," she says. "Deliver your package and get home. That's all I'm asking."
"All right," I say. "Fair enough. We can drop you off on the way." I raise my fingers to my lips to whistle for Gale, but realize a moment later that I don't actually have the package with me. "Hell, just a sec," I say, turning back toward the bakery. "I left it inside."
The baker looks up when I enter. I glance around the store but I don't see the oblong box. "Did I leave a package in here? About yay long? Ordinary looking."
He shrugs and shakes his head. "I didn't notice any boxes with you when you came in."
I balk. "What?"
"You weren't carrying anything," he clarifies, giving me a dull look. "You had no package."
"That's impossible." I stare accusingly at him, though what I'm accusing him of I have no idea. "I had to have it."
He gestures broadly. "You're welcome to look around, but you won't find what you didn't bring."
Ignoring the dirty look he throws me when I take him up on that offer, I scramble around the small store searching for the box. But he's right. It's not here. I drop heavily down onto a bench near the counter and put my head in my hands. It's not here! What did I do with it?! When did I have it last?!
How fast can I get out of town and never come back?
Melody sticks her head in the door. "Lije? Did you find it?" But it's not hard to answer that question just by the look on my face. Her eyes widen and I get to my feet.
"Come on," I say, "we have to retrace our steps." We leave the shop and head back through the market on the same path we wandered in. "When was the last time you saw me with it?"
"I don't know," she answers. "When we sat down for lunch? I wasn't watching it, Lije, I thought you were."
"Melody, Bruiser's going to kill me." I say this with absolute conviction. Suddenly my disregard for the package's apparent priority comes back to haunt me in the worst way. "Aiyet, Irae, and Kyn! What if it was important? What if it was some kind of national secret?! And I've left it out for anyone to find! There are Shardeni in town! What if they're here for the package?! What if they realize it's ripe for the picking?!"
"No one's going to realize anything if you stop shouting it at the top of your lungs," Melody snaps. "Calm down and think."
"Bruiser's going to hang me with my own scarf and you want me to calm down."
"He's not going to hang you."
"Yes he is. He said he would. He said he would turn my scarf into a noose and hang me with it. And that was just if I made him look bad! When he finds out I've lost the package, he's going to—!"
"Lije!" She shoves her hand against my chest to stop me. "Stop. Panicking. And think."
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. "Okay," I say. "I had it with me when we left the square after lunch. And I remember being annoyed that there was nowhere to put it down when we were watching the Koresh metal charmer. So I still had it then."
"Where did we go after that?"
"We sat for a while at the Lasan Tree."
"Did you have it when we left there?"
"I don't remember."
"I don't think you did. We went for supper after, and I don't remember you having it at the table."
I turn toward the center of the market and pull anxiously at my scarf. "Irae, let it be there."
"Aiyet would be a better one to pray to," Melody notes, trying to distract me from my angst. "She's the only one who can keep you safe if Bruiser catches you."
"Aiyet doesn't care much for people who make their own misery," I note. "Irae's the Goddess of Lost Causes, and if she won't help me then there really is no hope."
She concedes the point, which would be more offensive if I wasn't completely consumed by the thought of what's going to happen to me if I don't find that package.
The Lasan Tree is visible from anywhere in the market, dwarfing most of the buildings, and all of the stalls. No one's entirely sure how old it is, but it's been at the centre of Lucity for as far back as our records go. We don't even know what kind of tree it is – no one's ever found another like it, and it doesn't flower or offer seeds to plant more. Its branches are thick and wide, and spread like a protective shield over the market. It's a perfect tree for climbing, and as high up in its branches as I can go is probably my second-favourite spot in the whole city. Reminds me of my days in the Lostlands.
The ones that didn't suck, anyway.
Local legend has it that a Keeper was sealed away within it, ages and ages ago. It's a favourite story of the bards, especially around festival days. Nobody really believes it except me. But then, I was raised by the Fae, and to them the only truths that exist lie in stories.
We hurry into the clearing and up the hill to the wide trunk of the tree. Melody heads in one direction and I go the other. With a hand on the rough bark, I start tracing my half of the tree, eyes trained on the ground, looking for the package. I hear Melody exclaim in surprise from somewhere around the other side.
"Did you find it?" I call.
There's a moment's hesitation. "Yes?"
My heart sinks. It's broken or empty or ruined in some other way. I break into a run to round the tree and meet her on the other side. I'm dead, I tell myself. I'm so dead.
But then she comes into sight and I realize why she hesitated and it occurs to me that I'm not dead. Not right away. No, I'm slowly roasted over hot coals, and stretched on the rack, and locked in the iron maiden before I'm dead. I'm cut into a thousand times and left out in the desert for the scavengers to pick at my flesh. I'm dragged away to the Makan interrogation chambers and never heard from again. That's what I am.
Melody is there, and she has the package – whole and hale.
But Bruiser's with her.
And I will never see the light of day again.
I leap for the branch directly above my head, hoping to get up into the tree before he can cross the space between us. But the man is apparently part horse, because despite how big he is, I'm not fast enough. He's got his meathook hand wrapped around my ankle and is hauling me back down to the ground before I can secure my grip on the branch. The fall knocks the wind out of me and there's nothing I can do when Bruiser grabs the collar of my tunic and drags me back over to where Melody is standing.
"Kyn's fire, Bruiser," I gasp between my teeth. I roll over and clutch at the back of my skull as I curl up into the fetal position.
"One job. I give you one job," he barks. "And then I come out here to do my own, and what do I find but the package. Was I not clear, maybe, when I told you what to do with it? Did I say 'tree' when I meant 'princess'?"
"Why is it such a big deal?!" I demand, getting to my feet and moving out of arm's reach of him. "I got distracted, all right? But I came back to get the stupid thing because I was about to head out to deliver it. There's no way it's that important."
The clean line of his beard bulges dramatically as he clenches his jaw. There is something I can't identify in his expression that unsettles me. It has nothing to do with his anger that I screwed up, or even his general crankiness. It's sharp, and hard, and actually, legitimately dangerous. It makes me keenly aware that I may have lived with him for the last six years, but I have no idea who or what he was before that.
"Kid," he says with an effort, "you are going to take that box. And you are going to get on your horse. And you are going to ride to the castle and you are going to put the box into the Princess' hands. You are going to do this right now, do you understand me?"
"Bruiser," says Melody uncertainly, "it's almost sundown. Even with Gale, she'll never make it."
"I'll make it," I say. "Gale will get me there. Give me the box."
"What if they don't let you in?" Melody asks as she hands the package over.
I glance at Bruiser for advice, but his face is like a stone. "Find a way," he says. "I don't care how."
I stare at him with wide eyes, completely unable to fathom how grim his face is. "Bruiser, what's going on?" My voice sounds young and frightened to my own ears.
"Go," he says flatly.
What else can I do?
I set my fingers to my lips and blow the distinct whistle that will summon Gale to me, no matter where I am. As always the sound of the brief trill is bittersweet. The Dukae taught it to me, right before she died. Told Gale into existence. It didn't even occur to me at the time to wonder why I might need a horse.
Bruiser's hand is on my arm, turning me to face him. "Listen, Lije," he says. "There will be a woman named Thana. Whatever she tells you to do, you do it. To the letter. Don't question her, and don't argue. I mean it."
"All right," I say, far from comforted by these new instructions. "What's she going to tell me to do?"
"I don't know," he says. "But I won't be there if things go wrong, and I trust her more than anyone else in that heap of stone." A gust of wind rustles the leaves on the Lasan Tree and teases the end of my scarf as Gale arrives. Bruiser lets go of my arm.
"Bruiser," I say again, my voice stronger, "what's happening?"
He shakes his head and doesn't answer. "I'll get Melody home safe. Do as you're told, Lije." There is nothing in his body language to suggest he's going to give me anything more than that, so I give up. I turn to the beautiful blue roan waiting for me – my little storm cloud turned horse. She stamps her foot eagerly, sensing the tension of the moment and knowing it means she's going to get to run.
"Lije!" Melody calls as I turn Gale toward the castle. I look over at her, but she seems at a loss for what to say. "See you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow," I reply. I wish the words didn't feel like such a lie.
I turn away from her before she can see it in my face and lean forward. "All right lady," I say, patting Gale's neck, "we need to fly!" I nudge her flank with my heels and she leaps forward, eager and strong and joyous as only a horse can be.
Twilight nips at our heels, as we fly toward the castle gates and whatever lies beyond.