Authors: Livia Blackburne
Coming from anyone else, that comment would have rubbed Kyra’s already raw nerves, but Lettie looked so earnest that Kyra had to chuckle. She and Flick had been getting those types of
comments since before he could grow a full beard, but Flick was too much like a brother to her. It would have been strange.
She bent down to Lettie’s level. “He’s far too good-looking for me, Lettie,” she said, her face a mask of perfect seriousness. “Everyone would stare at us and say,
‘What’s that handsome lad doing with a girl in trousers?’”
Lettie’s face scrunched up. “But you’re pretty, Kyra, even if your bosom in’t very big.”
Idalee had a sudden and very violent coughing fit.
“Thanks, Lettie,” Kyra said drily. Maybe next time she should just say that Flick belched too loudly. “Idalee, do you two have somewhere to be?”
“We need more wool for our dresses,” said Idalee.
“Off you go, then. I’ll see you back home.”
The marketplace was still getting set up. Vendors pushed their carts into place and raised awnings to block the sun. None of the actual sellers at the stalls were traders, but they were the
first step to finding the caravans that supplied them.
Kyra sweetened a fishmonger’s opinion of her by buying a bag of smoked mussels, then asked if he knew where the caravanners stayed. He pocketed her coin and pointed her toward a large,
boxlike storehouse a few streets away. It was not unlike the building that the Assassins Guild had once used for its headquarters. There were a few wagons hitched out front with rough-looking,
travel-worn men and women walking amongst them. Kyra approached cautiously.
A tall man stood near the front gate, directing wagons in and out. He looked at her. “You with a caravan?”
Kyra shook her head. “No. But I’ve need of a Far Ranger to talk to. Are there any here?”
“Depends on what you mean by Far Ranger.”
“Someone who’s crossed the Aerins.”
The man squinted at her. “You looking to cause trouble?”
Kyra pressed a coin into his hand. “I’m just looking to chat. The Far Rangers have got their ear to the ground more than most.”
He fingered her coin and looked her over. Then he jerked his head at a wagon toward the back. “Jacobo’s caravan travels the Aerins.”
There were wagons of all types in this courtyard, ranging from flat carts for hauling lumber to covered wagons that could serve as semi-permanent homes. The people who came out of them were
equally eclectic in their look and dress. There were brown-skinned Minadans who wore heavy furs over their native tunics and tucked their bright pantaloons into winter-friendly northern boots.
Plenty of traders from the three cities were here too, clad in sturdy neutral-colored clothing. The trader women wore trousers like Kyra, so she actually looked less out of place here than she did
in the rest of Forge.
Jacobo’s wagon had seen its share of repairs. The awning was patched in several places, and not all the wood of the wagon’s body matched the rest. Kyra slowed as she came closer,
unsure what to expect. A trader stepped out from behind the wagon and fixated on her immediately. His skin was tanned, tough, and wrinkled, and there was more than one scar across his face. He
looked like someone who had weathered storms, ice, and hunger, and thought little enough of it that he did it over and over again.
“Are you Jacobo?” said Kyra.
He gave a careful nod. “I’m Jacobo. And you are?”
Kyra extended her hand. “My name is Kyra. Of Forge.”
The trader glanced at the tall man at the gate. “Gregor let you in here?”
“I made a convincing case,” Kyra said, indicating her coin purse. She wasn’t quite sure if admitting to a bribe was the best idea, but this trader didn’t seem the type
who appreciated being lied to.
Jacobo chuckled. “I reckon he wasn’t too hard to convince. Well, maidy, why take the trouble of searching out my company?”
“I’m looking for a Far Ranger,” said Kyra, hoping she was projecting at least some confidence. “Your people have a reputation for a long memory.”
“Depends on what you mean by long.”
“Have you heard any stories of Demon Riders crossing the mountains before this year? Mayhap in the past twenty years?”
Jacobo gave her a curious look. “That’s an odd question. Why do you want to know?”
“I work under the Palace defense minister. We’re trying to learn more about the barbarians.” All true, except that Malikel had no idea she was here.
“The Palace has never come to us for information before. And you don’t look like the usual fatpurse’s crony.” Kyra was wondering how to persuade Jacobo to talk when he
continued. “About fifteen years ago, a trade caravan was attacked near Forge, in the forest right above the upper waterfall. The wagons were destroyed and the crew was scattered, some killed.
One survivor said they were attacked by felbeasts—that’s what they’re called across the mountains.”
Fifteen years? Kyra didn’t know her exact age, but she’d guessed she was about seventeen or eighteen years old. If there had been a clan around the three cities about that long
ago…She tried not to let her excitement show. “You said there were survivors?”
“You say you’re from Forge?” asked Jacobo abruptly. “You don’t look it. Your skin’s a shade darker than most, and the slant of your
“Not everyone from Forge looks the same,” said Kyra, scrambling to make sense of his words. Did he know something?
“How old are you?”
“I don’t know.”
Jacobo kept studying her. “I’ve met one of the survivors from that caravan,” he said. “I could send word to him, see if he has anything to add, if that suits
Kyra rummaged around in her belt pouch and pulled out a piece of parchment. She scribbled Flick’s address, thinking it better not to leave anything that would lead directly back to her.
“You can find me here if you learn of any news. I’d be grateful.”
Jacobo tucked the parchment away. “I’m in Forge for the winter. We’re camped a quarter day’s walk to the west, along the main road. If I hear from the survivor,
I’ll find you.”
She thanked him and went on her way. The market was filling with people, but Kyra barely saw them as she mulled over Jacobo’s words. A clan had come to Forge over a decade ago. Could she
be descended from them? It was still morning, and Kyra had no plans for the rest of the day. The upper waterfall where the attack had happened wasn’t far. Everything would be gone after so
long, but she was still tempted to take a look. Kyra turned toward the city outskirts. She could probably get there in an hour.
She was just making her way out of the market when she heard a scream.
The cry came from someone young, and it came from close by. Now that Kyra was listening for it, she heard other shouts as well. She sped up toward the commotion.
A courtyard next to the market was crowded with people, all watching something in the center. There was a sickness to the air. As Kyra came closer, several people broke away from the crowd and
“You’ll learn to respect your betters,” came a man’s voice. “Tell me why we shouldn’t cut that tongue of yours clean out.”
Kyra thought she heard a whimper in response. She nudged a beggar woman next to her. “What happened?” she whispered.
“Some kind of row between fatpurses and a gutter rat. Gutter rat’s getting the worst of it now.”
Kyra redoubled her efforts to break through the crowd, her thoughts immediately going to Ollie. Had a nobleman taken exception to his hat? A few people protested when she pushed past them, but
most were too distracted by the spectacle in the square.
There was a sickening thud and a low moan as Kyra pushed in front of the people blocking her view. Now that she was through, she saw that the crowd pressed against the outer perimeter of the
courtyard, leaving the middle empty. Folk were afraid to get too close to the scene in the center, and Kyra couldn’t blame them.
Three young noblemen, peacocks in their colorful silk tunics, stood over a muddied body in the courtyard. The victim wore a dress—it wasn’t Ollie, then, though the girl looked to be
in bad shape. Then the victim rolled over, and Kyra’s heart stopped beating.
It wasn’t Ollie. It was Idalee.
The girl was hunched over in the mud, her face twisted in pain as a nobleman waved a dagger in front of her eyes. Even as Kyra watched, the wallhugger, a skinny young man in a purple tunic,
grabbed Idalee’s hair and pushed her face into the mud. His friend pulled his leg back for another kick. Kyra drew her dagger and made a mad rush into the circle. “Stop!”
Her momentum was enough that the noblemen jumped back, and Kyra threw herself in front of Idalee. The wallhuggers stared. If a squirrel had jumped off a roof and started talking to them, they
couldn’t have been more surprised.
“Kyra?” Idalee seemed to have trouble focusing her eyes on her.
Kyra crouched and placed her hand on Idalee’s shoulder. The girl’s nose was bleeding, and her lip was torn. “I don’t know what imaginary offense this girl
committed,” said Kyra. “But this is far beyond anything she could possibly deserve. Leave her be.”
The one in the purple tunic looked her over, still more confused than angry. “Who
He took a step toward her. Kyra raised her dagger.
“You’ll answer to the magistrate,” said Kyra. “There’s a courtyard full of witnesses.”
That was apparently the wrong thing to say. Purple Tunic’s expression changed from confusion to annoyance, and he advanced on her.
“The lesson we were teaching the girl could just as easily be extended to you,” the nobleman said, drawing his sword. All three of the wallhuggers had swords, she saw now. They were
probably good with them too, and there was no way she could fight them all with a dagger. Kyra scanned the crowd, looking for anyone who might help her. Faces stared back at her, but no one stepped
forward. There were even two Red Shields in the crowd, simply watching. Lettie was nowhere in sight, though Kyra supposed that was a good thing at the moment.
Well, there was one way she could defeat three swordsmen. Kyra felt inward for the sense of her fur. But she was surrounded by people. What would she do to them if she changed? She snuck another
glance at Idalee behind her. The girl lay with her temple against the ground, too tired even to lift her head.
There was a flash of motion in her periphery as Purple Tunic chose that moment to attack. Kyra jumped to the side to dodge his blade, remembering at the last moment not to impale herself on her
dagger. The slick mud cushioned her fall, but it was also ice-cold and sucked at her clothes when she tried to stand. The nobleman advanced on her. As Kyra regained her feet, he stopped and stared
at her neck. Kyra looked down to see that Malikel’s medallion had come out of her tunic.
“Where did you get that? Did you steal it?”
Kyra gripped the medallion in her hand. “My name is Kyra of Forge. I’m under the Defense Minister’s direct command.”
But then one of Purple Tunic’s companions stepped forward. “Santon, Malikel did take on the girl criminal recently.”
Santon looked at Kyra again, his eyes narrowing. Kyra dropped into a defensive crouch, but the nobleman spat on the ground and backed away. “I don’t know who you are, wench, but be
careful. Not even Malikel’s protection goes very far.”
The three wallhuggers turned, and the crowd parted for them as they left.
Kyra rushed to Idalee’s side, choking back a sob as she tried to discern the extent of Idalee’s injuries. There were cuts and bruises on the girl’s face, and
the way she lay there without propping herself up made Kyra wonder about her arm. Idalee’s breathing was pained and shallow, and her skin was deathly pale.
“I’m sorry,” Idalee whispered. Her voice was devoid of emotion.
“Shush.” Kyra wiped the blood from Idalee’s nose. “It wasn’t your fault.” Then Kyra sat up in panic. “Where’s Lettie?”
“She’s here.” The crowd parted to reveal Ollie holding Lettie’s hand, and Kyra squeezed the girl to her chest. “Are you all right?”
“Aye.” The child was trembling, but she was otherwise composed. It wasn’t the first beating she’d witnessed.
The gutter rats crowded around now, a tangle of rags and bony limbs. A girl with mousy features wiped the mud off Idalee’s face, while a pale boy poured water over her cuts. It suddenly
struck Kyra how efficiently they went about their tasks, how everybody seemed to already know what to do when one of their own was gravely hurt.
“Tell me what happened,” Kyra said to Lettie.
Lettie wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “It was the same wallhuggers who overturned her bread basket. Idalee called him a sniveling purple-headed worm.”
“We need to get her to a healer,” said Kyra. She looked down at Idalee. “Can you walk?”
Idalee nodded, her face lined with pain, and Kyra took her good arm to help her up. But after a few steps, Idalee started to whimper and her legs folded underneath her. There was a layer of
sweat on the girl’s brow as Kyra eased her back to the ground, and she was so very pale.
“Stay with her,” Kyra said to the children. “I’ll be back.”
Kyra wasn’t aware of much as she sprinted to the Palace, just the next corner to turn and the next person or obstacle to dodge. If anyone complained about her passing so carelessly, she
didn’t hear it. After the Red Shield at the Palace gate waved her in, she made straight for the Palace healer named Ilona, who had tended to Kyra’s wounds before. Though she was in the
Palace’s employ, she wouldn’t hesitate to help an injured child of low birth.
Ilona was a slender woman with ebony hair and a heart-shaped, freckled face. She took a half step back when she saw Kyra’s wild expression, and listened intently as Kyra related her story.
Once Kyra finished, Ilona gathered two apprentices and took a wagon down to the beggars’ sector. Her lips pressed into a thin line when she saw Idalee. In a commanding voice that belied her
small frame, Ilona ordered the gutter rats away and commanded her apprentices to help Idalee up.