Authors: Michelle Sagara
Tags: #General, #Epic, #Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy
“We can try. I’ve never been into the fiefs,” he added, “but Teela used to head there when she was bored.”
“She went to Barren when she was bored?” Kaylin could have sounded more appalled if she’d really worked at it—but not by much.
“Not just Barren,” Teela added, grinning broadly. The grin faded. “But the fiefs aren’t what they were when I was young. Find out what they want. Do
do anything stupid.”
Kaylin hesitated, and then reached into the folds of her tunic. When she withdrew her hand, it held the letter that Morse had given her. Funny, how it didn’t burn; it should have. “I wanted to keep this to myself,” she told them all: Severn, who hadn’t spoken a word, Teela, Tain. She especially did not want to talk to Marcus or Caitlin. She didn’t want to hear a word that someone out of department, like, say, Mallory, had to say. She just didn’t want to see the looks on their faces.
Teela shrugged. “Yes, that was obvious. And clearly your Corporal is willing to let you do that—but we’re not.”
Kaylin set the letter on the table, and picked up her mug. “You didn’t leave Tain behind,” she said.
“You came to the Hawks—you brought him with you. You didn’t leave him behind in the High Courts.”
Teela was silent for a moment, and the silence wasn’t punctuated by her slow grin. It was almost human. “No,” Teela said at last, “I didn’t. This person you met in Elani was a friend?”
“Maybe. A lot can change in seven years.”
Kaylin nodded, swallowing wine and something more bitter as she did. She picked up the letter, unfolded the paper and cringed before she’d read the first word. It was Barren’s handwriting. Maybe some things never changed.
I’ve been following your progress as I can—I admit it’s surprised me. You didn’t fall from the Tower, although the Hawklord’s still in it. You landed on your feet; he probably has no idea why you made your way out of the fiefs in the first place.
I know you didn’t like working for me; no one does. Doesn’t matter. You like working for the Hawklord, and I’m fine with that—everyone has to eat. But you probably want to keep on working across the river.
Working for the Law has its drawbacks. I don’t care what you are or what you’ve done—but the Law does. You know that.
The way I look at it, girl, you owe your life to me. You wouldn’t be where you are if I hadn’t sent you. And you probably can’t stay where you are, if they know why. I’ve got the information, and I can make your life very, very difficult without ever crossing a bridge.
But I’m not a malicious man. I’m a fief lord, and I aim to stay that way.
You’re going to help me, if the rumors are true. I’ll be generous. You’ve got three days before a small packet crosses the bridge in the hands of one of your old friends. In three days time, you can head it off at the bridge; if she sees you, she’ll bring you home, and the package will travel with you.
She lifted the mug, drained it, choked enough to bring tears to her eyes. Then she handed the letter to Severn, in silence. Her hands were shaking.
He took it and set it down without reading it. “Kaylin—”
She picked it up again, and shoved it into his hands. This time, she met and held his gaze. “I tried to tell you,” she whispered.
“Yes. And I told you I didn’t care.”
“Care now. Just read the gods-cursed thing.”
A brief pause. Severn’s brief pause, in which she could imagine almost any thought, any concern and any anger. He ended it with a nod, and he turned his attention to the letter—but she felt it anyway. It didn’t take him long to read it, and when he’d finished, he set it down in the exact same place on the table.
“He was clever enough not to say anything at all.”
“Three days,” she replied.
“Are you two going to share that?” Teela asked, holding a hand out across the table.
“No.” Kaylin picked up the letter and folded it. “Teela, Tain—I’m almost grateful for tonight. But I don’t want you involved with Barren.”
The silence that followed this statement was exactly the wrong type of silence, coming as it did from Teela. When she broke it, her tone could have frozen water. Or blood. “And we’re somehow at more risk than a human Corporal?”
Severn’s brow rose, but he was smart enough not to answer.
“Severn trusts me enough that he’ll let me do what I feel I have to do,” was Kaylin’s very—
—careful reply. “You both think of me as if I’m still a thirteen-year-old mascot, trailing around under Marcus’s claws.”
“And that’s inaccurate how?”
“My point. You don’t trust me.”
“I trusted you,” Teela pointed out, each word sharp and staccato, “with the life of the Lord of the West March.”
“Yes—but he was as good as dead. You had nothing to lose.”
Severn caught Kaylin’s wrist. She met his stare dead-on, and after a moment, she grimaced. Without another word, she handed the letter to Teela, whose hand had conveniently not moved an inch.
“Honestly, Kaylin,” Teela said, taking it, “you make the biggest fuss about the littlest things. It’s such a human trait.”
“We don’t consider them little.”
“Because you’ve only got a handful of years in which to attempt to truly screw things up. Try living a millennia or more. It’ll give you perspective.”
“I bet when you were young, you had to personally dig your own wells just to get water, too,” Kaylin said, under her breath.
Teela, who appeared to be reading the letter, said, “I heard that.” She looked up, handed the letter to Tain, and said, “So, why exactly did Barren send you out of his fief?”
She looked across the table; she could not look at Severn. But even not looking at him, she felt his presence as strongly as she had ever felt his absence. “He sent me,” she said quietly, “to kill the Hawklord.”
Teela’s brows rose; the rest of her face seemed frozen. “He sent a thirteen-year-old human child to assassinate the Hawklord?”
Kaylin nodded. She felt curiously numb, now that the words had left her mouth. She didn’t even feel the panicky need to claw them back, to make a joke of them. What did it matter, in the end? She could do whatever Barren wanted her to do, but if she did, she’d lose the Hawk anyway. If she didn’t?
She’d lose it, as well.
Teela frowned. “Pay attention, kitling.
did he send a child to kill the Hawklord?”
“I don’t know. I think he was trying to make a point.”
Teela shrugged. She didn’t seem disappointed in Kaylin at all—but then again, she was Barrani. It wasn’t the good opinion or the approval of the Barrani Kaylin was afraid of losing. Hells, given the Barrani she might even rise a notch or two in their estimation. “This is what you’re afraid of? He sends in so-called proof of that, people will be laughing for months.”
Kaylin, however, did not seem to find this as vastly humorous as Teela. Or Tain, judging by his smirk.
Severn covered the back of one of her hands with his. He asked no questions, and he made no comment; he didn’t even seem particularly surprised.
“Since you obviously failed to follow his orders—”
“The Hawklord, last I saw, was still breathing.”
“I didn’t fail to follow his orders,” was the quiet reply. “I just failed to succeed.”
Tain chuckled. It was the only sound at the table. Even Teela, not normally the most sensitive of the Hawks—which, given she was Barrani, was an understatement—was somber. “You tried to kill the Hawklord.”
Kaylin nodded. The lines of her face felt too frozen for expression; she wasn’t even sure what she looked like.
“If the Hawklord already knows—and I can’t imagine he doesn’t, unless you were truly, truly terrible—you’ve little enough to fear.”
Kaylin shook her head. “What I did in the fiefs, he won’t or can’t touch. What I did in the Tower? It
Marcus doesn’t know.” She lowered her face into her palms. Took a deep breath before she raised it. “I don’t want him to know,” she told them both.
Teela glanced at Tain.
“Don’t even think it.”
“Think what?” Tain asked. Barrani did a
mimicry of innocent.
“Barren’s a fief lord.”
“He’s human, isn’t he?” Teela asked, with her usual disdain for enemies who were merely mortal.
“I’m not sure that counts in the fiefs. Not when you’re the fief lord.”
Severn touched her shoulder, and she turned to look at him. “How much different is Barren from Nightshade?”
“The fief or the Lord?”
“The fief is—” Kaylin hesitated. “I’m not sure we would have noted the differences when we were kids. The people still live a really miserable life, the ferals still hunt. Barren doesn’t have public cages or hangings—he doesn’t need’em. If you piss him off, he throws you to the ferals.”
“The ferals aren’t that dependable.”
Kaylin grimaced. “No. I don’t know if he knows when they’re coming or not. He’ll wait it out with his victim until he hears the howls. He cuts them,” she added, staring at the tabletop as she spoke. “And then he makes them run.
“If they can survive until morning, they’re more or less free to go.”
“Pretty much never.” She started to rise, to shed the bench and its confinement, and his hand tightened.
“Severn—I don’t want to talk about Barren. I’ll talk about anything—and I mean
He met her gaze and held it, and she found it hard to look away. After a moment, she sat, heavily. He hadn’t forced her back down; her legs had given way. They waited in silence.
Kaylin surrendered. “There’s a bit more foot-traffic coming over from the right side of the bridge. Barren’s got storehouses and brothels on the riverside. But his own place? It’s not at the heart of the fief. He lives near the edge.”
“Which edge, Kaylin?”
She shook her head. “Inner.”
“You’ve been there.” It wasn’t a question.
She looked away again. “Yeah. I’ve been there. It’s not like Nightshade’s Castle.”
“It’s an old building, though?”
“I don’t know if it’s any older than the rest of the buildings there. There
a building that’s kind of like the Castle, but it’s older and more decrepit. I don’t think anyone lives there.” She paused, and then added, “I don’t think anyone who tries survives.”
“But Barren doesn’t.”
“You’re going to meet him.”
“No. I’m probably going to meet Morse. I don’t know where she’ll take me, or what she’ll tell me to do.” She looked across the table at Teela and Tain. She wanted to either drink a lot more, or have drunk a lot less. “I don’t want Marcus to know,” she whispered. “He thinks I’m a kit. He thinks I was a—a child—when the Hawklord dumped me on his division.”
“Kitling,” Teela said, almost gently, “you were.”
“He thinks I was a
child, turned thief because I had no
way of living in the streets of Nightshade.”
“But you know better?”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“I’m not. I’m treating you like a self-absorbed and ignorant human. Patronizing is different.” Teela lifted her mug. “Look. What humans do when they’re desperate is just an expression of fear. What they do when they feel safe is a better indication of whether or not you can trust them.”
“I thought the Barrani were allergic to trust.”
Teela shrugged. “It’s a figure of speech. What you’ve done, feeling safe? Volunteer with the midwives. The foundling hall. You’ve been, in Marcus’s estimation, a better officer than most of his Barrani. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. You did what you did—”
Kaylin let her talk. It did not, however, make her feel any better; the words felt hollow, built on a foundation that was shaky at best. Not as she remembered Elianne, who’d fled Nightshade after the deaths of Steffi and Jade. Fled Nightshade and ended up…elsewhere.
Severn’s voice pulled her back from the sharp bite of memory: her first night in Barren. She tried to school her expression, to force it into casual, neutral lines. It would change nothing. He knew what she was thinking.
She had taken a name for herself, not once, but twice: when she had first met the Hawklord, and when she had seen the Barrani pool of life. The one had been a lie that had slowly enfolded her, becoming a truth she desperately wanted to own; the other?
She had given it to Severn.
what she was thinking. But as he could, he now gave her room.
It never went away. The regret. The guilt. Sometimes it ebbed for long enough that she could believe she was beyond it, but that was wishful thinking, another way of lying to herself. She didn’t want to share this with Teela and Tain. Sharing bar brawls and near-death, yes. But this?
“Come on,” Severn told her quietly. “Let me take you home.”
“I can find home on my own.”
Teela snorted and rose. “This,” she said coolly, “is as much fun as the High Court.”
“Less,” Tain added. “No danger.”
“Pardon me for boring you both,” she snapped.
“We might. I have a question for you,” Teela said, as she rose. “You left Nightshade, and you entered Barren, yes?”
Kaylin nodded. It was brusque, and invited no further questions—but that was too subtle for Teela when she was determined.
“Did you notice nothing at all about the transition?”
“You left Nightshade.”
“I enter Nightshade and leave it now. I don’t notice it either way.”
“Now, you’re not
Nightshade.” Teela glanced at Tain, who shrugged.
“It was a straight run along the border nearest the river,” Kaylin told them both. “I wasn’t close to the—the other border.”
“No. If you’d run in that direction, you’d never have met the Hawklord. And,” Teela added, “our lives would generally be less interesting for the lack.” She nodded to Severn. “Tain and I have a little drinking to do. See that she gets home.”