Authors: Livia Blackburne
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Romance, #Adventure
Copyright © 2014 by Livia Blackburne
Cover design by Tanya Ross-Hughes
Cover photographs © Hotfoot Studio and Trevillion
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
For Mom and Dad
O N E
his job could kill her.
Kyra peered off the ledge, squinting at the cobblestone four stories below. A false step in the darkness would be deadly, and even if she survived the fall, Red Shields would finish her off. She stared a few moments more before forcing her gaze back up. The time for second thoughts had passed. Now she just needed to keep moving.
The jump ahead was two body lengths long, so Kyra backed away from the ledge. Ten steps, then she drew a breath and sprinted forward. She pushed off just before the drop, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. There was a slap of soft leather on stone as she hit the next ledge. The impact sent a wave of vibrations through the balls of her feet, and Kyra touched a hand to the wall for balance.
Too hard, and too loud.
Silently cursing her clumsiness, Kyra scanned the grounds, looking for anyone who might have heard her. If she squinted, she could make out faint outlines of buildings around her—some as high as her ledge, some even taller. The pathways below were lined with torches that flickered, casting shadows that played tricks with her vision. Since she couldn’t trust her eyes, she listened. Other than the wind blowing across her ears, the night was silent, and Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray lock of hair, she set off, dashing deeper into the compound.
Two days ago, a man had come to The Drunken Dog, introducing himself as James and asking for Kyra by name. He’d moved with a deliberate confidence, and his gaze had swept over the room, evaluating and dismissing each of its occupants. When Kyra had finally approached him, James laid out an unusual offer. There was a ruby in the Palace compound. He wanted her to fetch it for him, and he was willing to pay.
“The Palace is guarded tight,” Kyra had told him. “If you want jewels, you’ll better get them elsewhere.”
“This ruby’s got sentimental value,” he’d replied. Kyra didn’t consider herself the most astute judge of character. But she also wasn’t an idiot, and she’d swallow her grappling hook before she’d believe that this man would do
for sentimental reasons. The pay he offered was good though, and the job an intriguing challenge. The Palace was a far cry from the rich man’s houses Kyra usually raided, with their handful of sentries guarding two or three floors. The Palace’s massive buildings were patrolled by so many guards it was impossible to walk the grounds undetected. Rumor had it that even the rooftops were closely watched.
Which was why Kyra was neither on the ground nor on the rooftops. Instead, she balanced on a ledge outside a fourth-floor window, darting from shadow to shadow. The moon had not yet risen, and darkness concealed her from the Red Shields below. Unfortunately, it also hid the ledges from her own sight; the boundary between stone and air was easy to miss. From time to time, she slid a foot out to check her position, tracing her toe along the edge to fix the border in her mind.
Yes, she could die tonight. But as Kyra crept through the darkness, her doubts faded against the excitement of a challenging job. Those who knew her understood her skills. They knew she had no fear of heights and never lost her balance. But not even Flick, the closest thing to an older brother she had, understood the sheer joy that came over her every time she raced through the night. There was something about the way the darkness forced her to rely on her other senses, the way her body rose to the challenge. Her limbs silently promised her she would not fall, and by now she knew she could trust them.
The buildings across the path gave way to a courtyard with three trees, and Kyra slowed her pace, counting windows as she passed. The seventh from the southwest corner, James had said. These outer palaces were guest rooms for country noblemen visiting the Council. They were built securely but emphasized comfort more heavily than the fortresslike inner compound. And thus, they had glass windows instead of shutters, making it easy to see that the bedroom inside was dark. A minute fiddling with the latch, and the pane swung open on greased hinges. There was a shape on the bed, snoring in the loud and punctuated way of men who had indulged too much in rich food and drink. Kyra wondered for a moment what it would be like to get fat, to eat so much and work so little. No matter. Tonight, the nobleman would share some of his bounty.
She started with a dresser next to the bed, coaxing open the top drawer. Silk caught the dry skin of her fingertips. Apparently, the nobleman had a penchant for embroidered silk handkerchiefs. Not the jewelry box she sought, but Kyra took one and slipped it into her belt pouch. After checking the rest of the dresser, she moved to the desk. The latch gave easily to her pick, but there was nothing inside but documents and seals.
The sleeping nobleman shifted, and Kyra dropped to the floor. He rolled over, snorting loudly before his breathing once again settled. Kyra counted ten breaths, then went to the chest, taking care with the hefty cover. The top layer was fabric. Soon, she was up to her elbows in velvet night-robes, but still no ruby. If there was a jewelry box, it almost certainly would have been in the dresser or the chest. James had assured her that the nobleman wasn’t the type to hide his jewelry. Could he have been mistaken?
She combed the room again, feeling along the floors and walls for trapdoors, even running her hands over the bed’s thin mattress. Still nothing. Kyra bit her lip. The moon was rising, a thin crescent above the horizon that announced the coming dawn. She’d already stayed too long. Taking one last glance around the room, she crept back out the window.
Getting out was harder than coming in. Her limbs were slow from a night without sleep, and her nerves were frayed from being so long on her guard. By the time Kyra reached the meeting spot two blocks outside the Palace, the sky was visibly lighter, and she was in a considerably worse mood.
Two men awaited her at the street corner. They hadn’t seen her yet, and she took a moment to study them. The first was solidly built, with a stubborn jaw and brown hair curled close to his head—Flick. When Kyra had first told him about the job, he’d listed all the reasons she should refuse, from the dangers within the Palace to his suspicions about James. Her friend’s arguments had been more reasonable than Kyra cared to admit, but by then she’d already decided. Since Flick couldn’t dissuade her from going, he’d insisted on escorting James. The two men had watched her cross the wall a few hours earlier, and now they awaited her return. Kyra felt a twinge of guilt when she saw the tense set of Flick’s shoulders. He’d been worried.
Behind Flick, Kyra recognized James. He was slimmer but taller, with pale coloring and a wiry, athletic build. He exuded confidence, studying everything around him with languid readiness. His expression was impossible to read.
Both men’s eyes flickered to her hands as she came closer, then to her belt.
“It in’t there,” she said, answering their unspoken question. Perhaps her voice was sharper than it should have been, but she was tired.
There was a brief silence as the two men digested her news. Finally, James spoke. “What do you mean?”
“I flipped the whole room—the dresser, desk, the chest at the foot of the bed. No jewelry box.”
“You searched the entire room?” James raised an eyebrow.
Kyra spat on the ground. “Look, unless he sleeps with the rock in his smallclothes, it wasn’t there.”
“Maybe you went to the wrong place.”
There was a hint of derision in his voice, and it galled Kyra. Trying hard to control a flush of anger, she reached into her belt pouch for the handkerchief she’d taken from the noble’s dresser. She flicked it at James, who snatched it out of the air with surprising quickness.
“This handkerchief’s got the fatpurse’s initials embroidered on it. See if it matches your mark.”
Kyra made no effort to hide her frustration as James inspected the embroidery. Payment for the job depended on handing over the jewel, so she’d taken a long and dangerous night’s work for nothing. She felt a hand on her shoulder. Flick, knowing her temper, was silently warning her not to push anything too far. Kyra gritted her teeth. James studied the handkerchief, after a while not even looking at it, but through it. Finally, he looked up, and his demeanor abruptly changed.
“Very well,” he said, voice now smooth and agreeable. “Mayhap he didn’t bring the stone to the Palace.” James untied a pouch from his belt and tossed it at Kyra, who almost didn’t react quickly enough to catch it. “That’s the agreed-upon price, plus some extra. I believe this will cover your effort.”
Without another word, he turned and walked away.
T W O
he Drunken Dog was an establishment that awoke at night and slept during the day. Every evening, the small tavern brightened with the clink of flagons, loud talk, and the occasional song (often led by a slightly inebriated Flick). But come sunrise, the place dimmed. Pale sunlight shone through the small windows but couldn’t match the warmth of the Dog’s evening revelry. By the time Kyra and Flick walked into the main dining room an hour after dawn, only a few stragglers remained.
Brendel, the new talesinger, was packing up his lute. He raised his hand in greeting. “Ho, Flick, will you be here tonight? I’ll be playing ‘Lady Evelyne and the Felbeast.’” Brendel was a journeyman, and for his masterpiece—the work that he hoped would promote him to a master—he was putting the popular legend to song.
Flick grinned. “Let me sing the felbeast, and I’ll grace you with my presence.”
A man in a corner booth raised his flagon in Flick’s direction. “Felbeast? With them long lashes and pretty eyes, Master Flick should be singing Lady Evelyne.”
As the men roared in laughter. Kyra slipped past Flick and sat down at an empty table. After the noise died down, a woman’s voice called from the kitchen. “Kyra! Flick! Have you eaten yet?”
Despite her exhaustion, Kyra smiled. It didn’t matter when or in what condition she walked into the dining room. That was always the first question Bella asked.
“No, Bella.” Flick’s voice carried a tragic air that rivaled Brendel’s best performances. “We haven’t eaten in weeks. What’s left?”
There was a pause as Bella took inventory. “I have some leftover lamb stew and a few rolls. It should be enough if Flick reins in that greedy maw of his.”
Flick pantomimed a knife to his chest and sank into a chair. A plump woman, brown hair streaked with gray, carried out a tray with a basket of bread and two bowls of hot stew.
“What mischief have you two been stirring up?” Bella placed the food in front of them and wiped her hands on her apron. Kyra slouched into her chair, hoping Bella wouldn’t notice her unkempt hair and dirty clothes, but Bella grabbed a rag from a nearby table and brushed the dust off Kyra’s back. “I see this girl’s been working.”
Flick broke off a piece of bread and dipped it in his stew. “Kyra had an adventure last night,” he announced, ignoring Kyra’s warning look. Bella’s forehead creased with concern, but a whistle sounded from the kitchen. As Bella rushed to tend the kettle, Flick dug through his bowl and started picking out turnip pieces.
“I don’t understand,” Kyra muttered, half to herself.
“You’re wondering why he gave you the coin?” said Flick. He’d made a pile of turnips on his bread plate and absentmindedly pushed them toward Kyra, who dumped the pieces into her own bowl.
“He was only supposed to pay me if I brought the stone,” Kyra said.
“The ruby didn’t exist.”
Kyra started at the certainty in Flick’s declaration. Flick chuckled.
“Ah, Kyra, fearless thief. Able to outclimb a squirrel on any tree and outrun a mountain lion in total darkness.” He tugged her ponytail. “Take your eyes off the ledges once in a while. You might actually see something.”
Flick was insufferable when he decided to play smug older brother, but today she was curious enough to humor him. Kyra crossed her arms. “By all means, Grandfather. Share your wisdom with me.”
He flashed a quick grin before hunkering down over the table. “Kyra, think about it. Say you pull in a thief to nip some fatpurse’s trinket. You offer her decent coin, but still, you’re paying less than what the trinket’s worth. The thief comes back empty-handed, swearing she couldn’t find anything. What’s your first thought?”
“You think he’d suspect I kept the ruby? That’s silly. If I could find someone to buy jewels, I’d be living in them fancy houses, not cracking them.”
“You know that, and I know that. And maybe even James knows it’s near impossible to find buyers these days. But there was a lot of coin at stake, and James wasn’t suspicious at
. I know. I was waiting with him at the meeting place. When you didn’t show up on time—”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
He shot her a stern look. “As well you should be. But when you didn’t show up on time, he didn’t get suspicious. Didn’t react at all. He just…waited. And you saw how he was when he was asking you questions. Any idiot could tell he didn’t really care.” Flick’s expression turned serious. “Looking back, I’m an idiot myself. I was so sure you’d break your neck in the Palace that I plain overlooked the other ways things could have gone wrong. You were lucky, Kyra, no thanks to me.”
“I can take care of myself,” Kyra said automatically.
Flick laughed. “Better than I would have imagined a lass of seventeen ever could.”
“So I’m seventeen now?”
He made a big show of looking her up and down. “By height alone, I’d wager you were twelve, but wasn’t seventeen Bella’s last guess? Something about you gaining the poise of a young woman? You really should just pick a birthday—let Bella bake you a cake once a year.”
Kyra rolled her eyes. The real version of events was less poetic. She’d started her womanly bleeding three years ago, and she’d been the same height for the past year. Based on these signs, Bella recently declared that Kyra was seventeen. Kyra decided to let Flick keep his version of the story.
“So what do you think James wanted?” she asked.
“It’s a puzzle, but I’ve got a feeling you’ll see him again.”
Flick stopped as Bella dropped off some warmer rolls. “Wait, Bella.” Kyra fished into the pouch James had given her and pushed a handful of coins into Bella’s hand. “You’ve fed us too much lately.”
The older woman looked at the money dubiously.
“I didn’t steal anything,” Kyra promised. “Right, Flick?” Technically, she’d nipped a handkerchief, but she decided to let that slide.
Flick folded his hands behind his head, amused. “For once, she’s right. Better take it, Bella. You never know how long it will be before Kyra earns another honest coin.” He jumped back in his chair to avoid Kyra’s slap.
Bella dropped the money into her apron, and Kyra sighed inwardly with relief. Bella paid her employer out of her own pocket for meals she gave away, and though the cook would never admit it, Kyra knew she was struggling to make ends meet. News of barbarian raids in the outer villages was becoming commonplace these days, and as supply lines into the city slowed, all of Forge’s inhabitants tightened their belts. She worried that softhearted Bella was too generous for her own good.
“What did that strange fellow want with you?” Bella asked.
Kyra hesitated, not wanting to hide anything from Bella, but uneager to face her reaction. “He wanted me to nip something from the Palace compound.”
The dish Bella was clearing froze in midair. “The Palace?”
Kyra sheepishly related the rest of the story, and the older woman shook her head. She turned an accusing eye on Flick. “And you let her do that?”
“Bella, you know as well as I do that Kyra does what she wants.”
Bella shook her head. “Are you determined to rush to an early death, Kyra? It’s all romance and adventures until you realize you’re not immortal.” She picked up Flick’s empty stew bowl and returned to the kitchen.
Kyra stared after Bella, momentarily cowed. Bella’s only son had been lost at sea years before she started working at The Drunken Dog. Word was that he had wanted to see the Far Lands for himself.
“Mayhap she’s right,” Flick mused. “Me and the other lads—we do a few raids here and there to make ends meet, but this is all you do. And you keep taking more risks. It’s really not good for a lass. Just one mistake at the wrong time—”
“You’re right, Flick. I’ll change my ways. Why don’t you find me a young man who’ll marry a lass who spent her childhood begging on the streets?”
Flick threw up his arms. “Just think about it.”
“I already have. I can’t get odd jobs around the city like you. I can’t make enough as a serving lass to cover my lodging, and I have no intention of marrying right now. And you know I need more coin for the gutter rats.”
As Kyra scooped up the last of her stew, Bella returned from the kitchen. “Speaking of gutter mice, Idalee was here looking for you.”
“Idalee?” Kyra asked. “She doesn’t often come this far in.”
“I sent her back with some stew. She didn’t say where she’d be, but I assume you can find her?”
Flick glanced at Kyra. “You fixing to look for her?”
Kyra suppressed a yawn. “She’s probably wandering the city right now. I’ll catch a nap and find her this evening.”
Kyra dreamed she was climbing. But instead of the Palace walls, she scaled a rock face in a hot, sandy landscape. The sun beat down on her hands and face, and though her arms grew weak, she never quite reached the top. It was late afternoon when Kyra finally woke. The cliff face lingered in her mind, but Kyra had long given up on making sense of her dreams. Instead, she dressed to go into the city. Idalee was probably done with her rounds for the day, and if Kyra left now, she would have a good chance of finding her.
As Kyra stepped out the front door of The Drunken Dog, a sharp voice called to her.
“You, girl. In the trousers.” Kyra turned out of habit, then regretted it when she saw the speaker was scarcely older than a girl herself, dressed in a gown that cost more than a year’s takings for Kyra. Her fingers were adorned with jewels, and her wrists and neck were ringed with trader charms—basilisk scales, love stones—the type of fanciful trinkets that honest folk ignored and the wealthy squandered their money on. The girl and her two shieldmen were clearly out of place in the dusty streets outside The Drunken Dog. She probably found it romantic to be exploring such a neighborhood. If the girl’s carelessness got her in trouble here, it would be the folk who lived here who paid for it.
The girl gestured imperiously to Kyra. “Carry my bags for me.”
Kyra hesitated. She had no respect for a spoiled nobleman’s daughter, but her shieldmen looked mean. People skirted around them, clearly glad the girl had focused on Kyra instead of them.
“Well, hurry up,” said the girl.
Kyra could hear Flick’s voice in her head, telling her not to do anything stupid. “Mayhap milady could have her soldiers carry her bags for her.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “I’ll pay you. Don’t pretend you don’t need the money.”
Kyra stiffened. When she finally replied, her voice was low and steady. “I’m sorry, milady. I in’t your packhorse.” The girl’s eyes widened, and Kyra ran for an alleyway. Once around the corner, she shinnied up a pole and pulled herself onto the rooftop. She peeked over the edge to see the nobleman’s daughter still staring in the direction of the alleyway. Not one to push her luck, Kyra backed up and hurried on her way.
The city of Forge took the form of several concentric rings. At its center was the Palace compound, with the Fastkeep at its heart and the outer compound surrounding it. The wealthy, or “wallhuggers” as some called them, formed the first ring outside the compound walls, taking advantage of the security the Palace provided. Outside that ring, craftsmen and merchants set up their shops, relying on the wealthy to keep them in business. The Drunken Dog, where Kyra rented a small room, was slightly outside the merchant ring—far enough from the Palace to avoid the authorities’ notice, but close enough to the markets to cultivate its diverse mix of patrons.
Kyra skirted along rooftops, heading away from the merchant district until she reached the outermost ring of the city. This area also had houses and shops, but the buildings were less clean and the streets less orderly. Gradually, the carpentry of the houses became more run-down; the piles of trash in the street grew larger and more numerous.
She climbed down and continued at a brisk pace, pausing periodically to drop a coin into an outstretched hand. Kyra felt her nerves tingle, her awareness sharpening out of habit. Every landmark had a memory attached. At one street, the baker’s wife passed out scraps after sunset. One road over, behind a wooden fence, there was a space where a small child could huddle while others ran past.
It was on these streets that Flick had found her a decade ago. She’d been suspicious of him at first. The boy’s clean face and untorn clothes immediately marked him as an outsider. Though, at fourteen, he hadn’t yet reached his full height, he was still nearly twice her size. Kyra had scowled and slipped into one of her hiding places, but he returned the next day.
“Your hands look small. Can you reach between the slats of a fence?” he asked her.
Kyra checked to make sure the other children were in view before moving closer. Flick told her that a lady had dropped her purse behind a locked fence. It was just out of his reach, but if Kyra would help him get it, he promised her half the pickings. It was simple enough, and surprisingly, the boy was true to his word. After that, he kept coming back with more ideas. He learned about Kyra’s penchant for climbing into high places, and she learned that he roamed the streets because his mother was becoming too ill to care for him. In time, Flick started bringing Kyra food even when there were no jobs.
They became business partners of sorts, and eventually friends. It was Flick who took Kyra to The Drunken Dog and introduced her to Bella, Flick who told Kyra that she could stop living on the streets if she made enough money. Somehow, Bella convinced the owner of The Drunken Dog to rent a room to Kyra, and in hindsight, it was a good thing she had. Most of the children from Kyra’s younger days were gone. Kyra had no idea where they were or whether they were still alive.
“Griffin feathers, milady? Bring you good luck.” A small boy with stringy hair thrust a tattered bunch of feathers at her.
Kyra almost walked past him, then sighed and turned around. Everything about the boy betrayed him as new to the streets, from the way he failed to blend in, to his carelessness in addressing strangers. She took the boy’s trinket and rolled it between her fingers. “You new at this?”
Confusion flashed across the boy’s face. “Just a quarter copper each, milady.”
Kyra handed it back to him. “You can’t take chicken feathers and say they’re from griffins. People in’t that dull.”