A Heart So Fierce and Broken (The Cursebreaker Series) (6 page)

BOOK: A Heart So Fierce and Broken (The Cursebreaker Series)
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His face has paled a shade, but his voice is strong. “My people know I will do whatever it takes to keep them safe.”

Nolla Verin stares up at him. “If a magesmith lives, if a magesmith is heir to your throne, I would expect we would be well-suited to help each other.”

“There is nothing you can offer me. Guards, escort them off the grounds.”

A jolt goes through me. We’ve failed.

This will mean war. More death. More destruction.

“Wait,” says Harper. Her voice is full of emotion. “Wait.” She swallows. “Why did you ask about Grey?”

Mother stares up at her and smiles. “You do not think he is dead, do you, Princess?”

Prince Rhen turns his head and says something softly, but Harper clenches her eyes closed. A tear slips down her cheek. “We don’t know.”

“A pity,” Mother says. “Come, Daughters. We will leave the prince to his choice.”

“Wait,” Harper calls. Her red skirts flare as she hurries down the palace steps. “What do you know about Grey?”

Our guards step forward to prevent her from getting anywhere close to Mother.

Prince Rhen’s guards do the exact same thing.

They stare at each other across a barrier of protection. Mother’s expression is carefully neutral, but Harper’s is flushed, her eyes pleading.

“You should hope he is dead,” says Mother. “For the sake of your prince. For the sake of his kingdom.”

Harper’s breath catches. “Why?”

“According to the enchantress, Grey is the only man who knows the true identity of the heir.”

Harper goes white. Prince Rhen has reached her side, and his face is full of fury. “This is not the first time you have attempted to undermine my rule with trickery and lies. You will not get another chance. Leave. Now.”

Mother turns for her carriage.

Nolla Verin climbs into ours. I follow, my heart thudding at a rapid pace. A guard slams the door.

“He is a
fool
,” Nolla Verin says to me before the horses begin to pull away. Her voice is loud enough that I’m certain the prince will hear it.

I think of the damage we caused to this country already.

I think of that trapper in the woods, his daughter cowering beneath him.

This should have gone so differently. Nolla Verin implied I would have sought an alliance with nuts and honey—but I know I wouldn’t have sought one with callous arrogance and disregard.

The prince is not a fool
, I want to say.

But I am not the heir, so I don’t.

 

CHAPTER SIX

GREY

Jodi’s tavern is packed. The heat wave has men thirsty for ale and women looking for any excuse to get out of the sun. The heady scent of shellfish and baked vegetables mixes with the slightly sweet tang of liquor for those with a few more coins to pay. Tycho and I take a table near the back just to get away from the noise.

Days have passed, and our shared secret seems to have bonded him to my side like a brother. We’ve been sparring in the early-morning hours when the sky is barely pink and the tourney is deserted. After only a matter of days, his skill with a blade has improved exponentially. It’s more than the swordplay, though. It’s the trust. A wall has come down between us that I didn’t even know was there.

Jodi brings a pitcher of water to replace the one we’ve emptied, along with a basket of steaming bread and a thick slab of cheese. She casually bumps my shoulder with her hip, then leans down close, so the feathers in her hair tickle my forearm. “I wish I could hide back here with you two.”

She smells like strawberries. She must have been slicing them for the wine. “You’re welcome to try.” I nod at the packed front of the tavern. “I think they’d seek you out before long, though.”

She pouts. “You’d protect me from them all, wouldn’t you, Hawk?”

I pull a hunk of bread from the loaf. “You’d do better to ask Tycho. He’s braver than I am.”

She swats me on the back of the head and moves away.

I use the knife to slice a piece of cheese to add to the bread, then realize Tycho is staring at me. “What?”

His voice is low. “I think Jodi might fancy you.”

Jodi couldn’t be more obvious if she climbed into my lap and began unlacing my shirt. “I’ve noticed.”

“You don’t fancy her?”

I glance across the tavern, where Jodi is sashaying between tables. She flirts with all her customers, but she never lingers like she does with me.

We’re far from other patrons, but I drop my voice anyway. “To be a guardsman, you had to forswear family.”

“Forswear?”

“Pretend they don’t exist.” I hesitate. “Family is a liability. If a guardsman can be manipulated by a threat to those he cares for, he can be used against the Crown.”

He frowns. “So … what? You’re to care for
no one
?”

I think of my mother—or the woman I
thought
to be my mother—watching me leave with panicked eyes. I think of my nine brothers and sisters, slaughtered one by one as Lilith attempted to manipulate me into betraying Prince Rhen.

Her efforts did not work. My training was too thorough, my loyalty too steadfast. There was no one she could have used against me.

Unbidden, my thoughts conjure Harper, her fierce bravery countered only by her gentle kindness. I remember the day she convinced a cadre of Syhl Shallow soldiers that she was the princess of another nation. How after they left, spitting threats and promises of revenge, she didn’t choose to run and hide. She asked me to show her how to throw knives.

When Lilith threatened to kill Harper, I yielded. I got down on my knees and offered to swear myself to her.

I refuse to allow these thoughts to hold any power over me. “I’ve forgotten how to care for anyone, Tycho.”

He studies me for the longest moment. “I don’t think that’s true.”

I consider how I almost tossed him from the hayloft, and I’m not sure what to say. I tear another piece of bread from the loaf.

“You can’t train mercy out of someone,” he says.

“You surely can.”

He’s frowning again. I tear another piece of bread and hold it out. “Eat. I don’t want to have to run back.”

Dutifully, he eats. We lapse into silence, and the space around us fills with the braying laughter and heady conversation that packs the tavern. Near the door, an older man with a heavy paunch is draining what must be his third tankard of ale. His name is Riley, and he’s telling a story about a blind woman who was sold a donkey instead of a draft horse, and he couldn’t convince her otherwise. He’s one of the few blacksmiths in Rillisk, but he and Worwick share an old grudge, so he doesn’t shoe our horses. He probably charged Worwick a fair price, which to Worwick would be too much.

Jodi passes our table again, her hand brushing against my arm. I entertain the thought of catching her fingers and drawing her back. It would be simple. Uncomplicated. I could lose myself further into the persona of Hawk, leaving Grey behind.

When she turns, I meet her eyes, and she smiles.

I offer one of my own, and she blushes.

This should feel easy. It doesn’t. It feels like manipulation.

I break eye contact and look back at my bread. “Nearly done?” I say to Tycho, and my voice is rough.

He nods and pulls coppers from the pouch at his waist.

The door at the front of the tavern swings open, and a group of men enter slowly. The tavern is too loud and crowded for them to garner much attention, but light glints on steel, and I catch a flash of red.

I go still. My hand finds the knife.

But it’s not a Royal Guard uniform. It’s the Grand Marshal’s enforcers. The leading man is older, with graying hair and a thick beard, a patch covering one eye. He’s trailed by three others.

“Where is the blacksmith called Riley?” he announces, and there’s enough weight in his voice that conversation dulls to a murmur. Every head in the tavern turns to look at the corner where Riley sits.

Riley shoves back his chair and stands. He’s an honest man, so he looks more confused than concerned. “I am Riley.”

“You are accused of using magic to better your trade. You will come with us.”

Riley falls back a step. “I don’t— I’ve never— I know no
magic
.”

The guards have already begun surrounding him. The other men at the table have drawn away. All conversation has stopped.

Riley continues to backpedal. Men get out of his way as if he’s diseased. One of the enforcers has a sword drawn.

“I know no magic!” he cries. “I am a blacksmith!”

The lead man gives a signal to the others, and the men move through the tables as if to cut off escape.

“Hawk,” whispers Tycho. “Hawk—we have to—”

I silence him with a look, but his eyes still plead. I don’t know if he wants me to intervene or surrender myself or something I can’t fathom, but I can do nothing. I cannot draw attention to myself. Not now.

The one-eyed man seizes Riley’s forearm. “You are to come with us.”

Riley jerks back. His face is red, from shame or fury or both. “I have done nothing wrong! You can’t seize peaceful citizens—”

“We have our orders.” Another enforcer grabs his other arm.

Riley looks around desperately, but the other patrons have cleared a wide path. “Will no one speak for me?”

With a ruffle of skirts and defiance, Jodi sweeps past me. She’s inhaling to protest.

I catch her arm and tug her back against me. We’re far enough in the corner that we haven’t drawn attention away from Riley, but if she keeps struggling, we will. “Jodi,” I whisper against her hair. “Let them take him peacefully.”

She strains against my arm, but she has the good sense to keep her voice down. “He’s a good man.”

“Then they’ll question him and let him go. He’ll lose a day of wages and earn a good story to tell over the next round of ale.”

Across the table, Tycho’s eyes are wide. I must sound sure, because Jodi relaxes.

Riley is struggling against the enforcers. He’s strong, and he gets an arm free.

The one-eyed man drives a fist into his belly. Riley doubles over with a grunt and nearly falls to a knee. They get a grip on him again and half drag him to the doorway.

“You can’t do this,” he wheezes. “I heard about the tailor in Lackey’s Keep. You can’t accuse good people.”

The enforcers ignore Riley, yanking him forward impassively. When they reach the door, one of the men releases his arm to grab the handle.

Riley whirls and grabs one of their weapons. I don’t know his motive, whether he thinks he’ll be able to fight his way free or defend himself or buy more time, but I’ll never get the chance to ask him. One of the other enforcers puts a sword through his chest. A choked sound breaks from Riley’s lips, and he goes down.

A collective gasp goes through the tavern.

Jodi slips free of my hold. “You monster!” she cries. She throws herself at the enforcer who stabbed Riley, shoving him away. “How
could
you?”

He catches her arm and gives her a little shake. The one-eyed man lifts his sword.

Without thought, I shove my way in front of her. His sword point finds my chest, a weight of steel against my shirtfront.

“Enough,” I say. His one eye narrows.

Jodi is shaking against me.

I think of my last words to her.
They’ll question him and let him go.

I should have known better. I
did
know better.

Glances are exchanged throughout the tavern. People shift nervously. Chairs scrape against the wood floor. Shaking breath comes from all directions.

A man’s voice speaks up uncertainly from near the front. “I always thought there was something unnatural about the way he could unlame a horse.”

“His forge always seemed to run hotter than the others,” another man agrees.

“Did you see that nag brought down from Hutchins Forge?” says a woman. “Riley said he had something special that would make its gait straight—and sure enough, he did.”

That sword is still sitting against my chest. “She attacked an enforcer,” says the one-eyed man.

“She’s upset. She didn’t mean any harm.” I thrust a hand into my pocket and withdraw a handful of coppers. I hold it out to him. “Buy your men a drink on me.”

He regards me coolly. Tension rides a knife’s edge. The other patrons wait to see if another man is going to die.

I jingle the coins in my hand. “Worwick will be upset if I don’t show up to open the tourney.”

He grunts and withdraws his sword. “You tell her to mind her own business next time.”

“Yes, sir.” I turn and press the coins into Jodi’s hand. Her eyes are full of tears, and her fingers tremble hard enough to make the coins rattle. “Buy them a drink,” I say quietly.

“He was a good man,” she whispers. “He was a good man, wasn’t he, Hawk?”

I close her fingers around the coins to silence them. “You need to set the tavern to rights, Jodi. Don’t give them a reason to start something else.”

Maybe she hears the urgency in my voice, because she sucks back the tears and straightens her skirts. She nods quickly.

I look to Tycho, who’s been watching with wide eyes. “Worwick will expect crowds after this. We need to get back.”

Late-evening sun streaks through the city when we emerge
from the tavern. Tycho keeps his mouth shut and stays close to my side as we weave through the gathering crowds outside the tavern.

Gossip travels fast.

When we’re in the deserted back alleys, Tycho ventures a question. “Do you think he was a magesmith?”

I give him a look.

He swallows. “They killed him, Hawk.”

They’ll likely receive a reward, too. “I told you what they’d do.”

“But—how did they know if he was guilty?”

“That doesn’t matter. This isn’t about guilt. This is about scaring the people into believing a magesmith can be caught and killed easily. This is about proving there is no threat to the Crown.” A bitter taste lingers in my mouth. A man died because of me.

I cannot outrun this. There is nowhere to go.

Tycho’s voice jerks me out of my reverie. “Is that why so many people were suspicious?”

“It’s easier to believe someone is guilty than to consider that an innocent man could be eating oysters one minute and bleeding on the floorboards the next.”

That shocks him into silence. We walk quickly. I rub at the back of my neck, dragging sweat away. We’ve made good distance from the tavern, and gossip hasn’t reached this far yet. A girl is driving sheep through the narrow alley, and Tycho and I pull into a doorway to let them pass.

His eyes are on me, but I can’t meet his gaze. “Would you have done it?”

I watch the shorn backs of the sheep as they bleat their way past. “Done what?”

“Would you have killed him?” He swallows. “When you were a guardsman?”

I think back to my service to King Broderick, before the curse. I consider my near-eternity with Prince Rhen, when we were trapped in the halls of Ironrose. I would like to think he’d never give orders that would lead to this kind of action.

I know better. It would have cost him something, but Rhen would do it if he believed it was the only way to protect his people.

I look at Tycho. “I would have followed orders, Tycho. Whatever that meant.”

He stares up at me. I can read nothing in his gaze.

The last sheep passes, and I step out of the doorway without waiting to see if he follows.

BOOK: A Heart So Fierce and Broken (The Cursebreaker Series)
4.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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