Teia lowered the silk noose toward her damnation. Rope spooled out from careful fingers toward the anxious woman quietly working at the desk below. The target was perhaps thirty, wearing a slave’s dress, her copper-colored hair pulled up in a simple ponytail. As Teia watched, the woman folded a piece of luxin-imbued flash paper that all her spies used. She paused and took a sip of an expensive whisky.
Don’t look up! Please don’t look up.
The woman was Prism Gavin Guile’s room slave. She was the White’s hidden spy mistress. She was Teia‘s former superior and her mentor. Marissia put down her whisky and as she sealed the note, she said, “Orholam, forgive me.”
Teia was using the shimmercloak that Murder Sharp had given her, but clinging to theironwork on the ceiling like this, it hung away from her body, and it didn’t hide the dangling noose at all.
But Marissia didn’t look up. She put the note aside, and pulled out another sheet of thin paper.
As her mentor leaned forward, Teia dexterously flipped the noose over Marissia’s head and then dropped from the ceiling, holding the rope. Draped over a beam above, the noose jerked tight around Marissia’s throat and hauled her to her feet. The sharp movement flung her chair backward just as Teia, holding the other end, swung down and forward. The falling chair cracked across Teia‘s shins a moment before she crashed into Marissia.
Somehow, Teia kept from releasing the rope, and she didn’t cry out. Marissia was choking, grabbing at her neck, scrambling to get her feet under her.
Amazing how pain shuts down your thinking. If Teia hadn’t just gotten her shins destroyed, there were a dozen things she would have done. Instead, she clung stupidly to the rope, gasping, tears springing from her eyes, face to face with her old superior.
As Marissia regained her feet, Teia saw the problem: she wasn’t as heavy as Marissia. Marissia noticed it too. Though gagging, she grabbed the rope above her head and pulled down with all of her strength.
Something shimmered in the corner of Teia‘s eye, and Murder Sharp became visible as he took quick steps across the carpet. He buried a fist in Marissia’s stomach.
Marissia’s strangled cough blew spit across Teia‘s face. The slave woman went slack. In quick motions, Sharp took the noose from Teia, threw a sack over Marissia’s head, and bound Marissia’s hands behind her back in such a way that any move she made to escape would tighten the noose around her neck.
Master Sharp was gifted with knots.
He forced Marissia to her knees and checked once more that she could breathe–all the fight had gone out of her.
“Not good,” Master Sharp said, turning back to Teia. “Not very good at all.” He was a lean man with sharp features, orangey-red hair, and a short beard the color of fire. His most remarkable features, though, were his teeth and his too-big, too-frequent smile, which he flashed now joylessly, by mere habit. Usually, the teeth he revealed with that smile were too-white and too-perfect. On most hunts, he wore dentures made of predators’ teeth. But today, perhaps because his mission wasn’t to kill anyone, he wore dentures of beaver teeth–a full disconcerting mouth of big, wide, flat incisors. They barely fit in his mouth.
“But you kept her from destroying any of the papers,” he continued, “So I’ll accept it.”
“You were here the whole time?” Teia asked. She set the chair back upright to give herself a moment of not looking at the monster who was now her master. She massaged her aching shins. Orholam have mercy, those beaver teeth made her skin crawl.
“This is too important for me to let you bungle it. She was some kind of secretary for the Prism. Who knows what she has access to?”
Secretary? So the Order didn’t know what Marissia really was. Why then were they kidnapping her?
And why kidnapping? Teia had thought that the Order only killed people.
Not that they wouldn’t murder Marissia after whatever they had planned here.
Handing Teia the noose, Murder Sharp strode to the window to look down at the islands. Even from where she was, Teia could see a thick curl of black smoke rising to greet the morning sun.
Earlier this morning, their trainer Tremblefist had blown the black powder stores beneath the cannon tower so Kip and the rest of the Mighty could escape by sea. He’d probably given his life doing it. The squad had gotten away while Teia had chosen to stay here. And now she was doing this. She was a fool.
“We’re lucky,” Sharp said. “The few Blackguards who weren’t already on the parade route have abandoned their posts to get down to that tower. Still, no time to waste. You watch her. Break her neck if she screams.”
He shook his head at that last part. He’d said that for Marissia’s benefit. He made a fist and mimed hitting her stomach. Knock the wind out of her if she screams, he meant.
Why he hadn’t just gagged her? Teia didn’t know, but she didn’t ask. She’d learned not to push themercurial assassin. Sometimes he had deeper plans. Sometimes he didn’t think of the obvious. But he never liked being questioned. And there was no up side in Teia appearing too smart.
Sharp scooped all the papers off the table and into a sack. He opened drawers and grabbed every paper with writing on it, and thumbed through all the blank pages to make sure nothing was hidden from him.
Then he was off, searching the rest of the room.
Marissia gave two sharp, little tugs on the rope in Teia‘s hand.
“Shhh,” Teia said.
Marissia waited a few seconds and tugged again. She wanted to say something.
What was Teia going to tell her? She hadn’t known Marissia outside of their work, but she’d felt a kinship and deep respect for the woman. They had both been slaves. Both were spies, and Marissia had risen as high as any slave or spy could.
Marissia had once told Teia that the Order would make her do something terrible. “Let it be on my head–but do it,” she’d said.
But there was no way she could have guessed that the something terrible would be her own kidnapping and likely murder.
Another tug. Master Sharp had ducked into the slave’s closet off the main room, out of sight and earshot. “He’s gone. Only for a moment,” Teia whispered.
“Third drawer, left side,” Marissia whispered. “Halfway back, straight up. Push hard. Quick!”
Master Sharp had left the drawer open, so Teia only had to take one step and stoop. The surface felt flat, but as Teia pushed hard on the surface, she felt something snap with a slight chalky scent of broken blue luxin, and a tiny section of the wood sank in. A folded piece of parchment dropped into her hand.
Teia stepped back into place, stashing the parchment in a pocket. “Got it,” she whispered.
“Tug when you need me–”
Master Sharp stepped back in. “What’s she saying?”
“Um? What?” Teia said. For one terrifying moment, her mind went blank. “Oh, she’s trying to bribe me.” Teia said it like she was bored.
Staring at her hard, Master Sharp ran a freakishly long pink tongue over those horrid wide teeth. “I took a bribe…” He smacked his lips. “Once. Had no plan to let the man go of course, and killed him as soon as I got the coin.” Sharp tucked a package of documents tied with red or green ribbon into his sack. Teia was colorblind, so she could only tell it was one or the other. “No harm, right? TheOld Man… disagreed. Emphatically.”
He smiled, too broadly. Something about those teeth twisted Teia‘s stomach more than when he’d worn a full set of wolves’ fangs.
“How much did she offer?” he asked.
Teia froze. There was a hook in that question. Marissia the Prism’s room slave might have squirreled away a small fortune. Marissia the spy would have saved a lot more, and with her life on the line, would she not offer a large bribe? But maybe not too large, a spy mistress would be smart enough to start small–
Too long, T, don’t take too long!
Teia said, “She hadn’t mentioned any figures. And I wasn’t listening, anyway. I’m not in this for coin.” Change the subject, change the subject.
“Why are you, then?” Master Sharp asked.
“Are we really going to have this conversation in front of her?” Teia asked. “Now? You said we needed to–”
“We don’t need to worry about her.” His voice lowered dangerously, “And don’t question me.”
Orholam have mercy. That cemented it. Whoever they were giving Marissia to was going to kill her. “I’m here for revenge.”
“Revenge? On who?”
Teia cocked her head as if it were an odd question. “On all of ’em.”
He grinned, this time for real. “You’ll get plenty of that. And you’ll come to the Crimson Path eventually.” The true friendliness should have made him less scary, but any comfort she might have felt was ground to paste between those inhumanly wide teeth.
He walked over to Marissia, still on her knees. “How much would you give us?”
Tremulously, she said, “As much as you want, I swear. I can get access to the Prism’s account if we act fast. Please, sir, please.” She broke off as if terrified. It twisted Teia‘s guts because she couldn’t tell which was true: Marissia’s earlier bravery or her current terror. Maybe both.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Master Sharp said. “If she yells, kill her.” Had he forgotten he’d already threatened that?
Or did he actually mean it this time?
Marissia collapsed, sobbing quietly.
Master Sharp nodded to Teia. “I need to check the White’s room and make a distraction. Be ready to go quick. If I’m not back in five, untie her, throw her off the balcony as if she suicided, and make your way out the same way we got in.” He threw his hood over his head and pulled the laces through the grommets quickly, cinching the mask tight over his nose and mouth, leaving only his eyes clear, and those shadowed under the hood. He turned and began shimmering.
On the back of his gray cloak, the image of a tufted gray owl appeared with its wings spread and talons extended to strike. The image shimmered out of phase with the rest of the cloak, and disappeared last.
The door opened, showing a hallway marked with smoke and pools of blood and scratches and divots in the stone walls from arrows and bullets from the Mighty’s battle with the Lightguards earlier. That felt like a lifetime ago. Then the door shut quietly.
Teia instantly shot a wave of paryl gas in an arc where Murder Sharp had been standing to make sure he was really gone. He was.
“Quickly,” Teia said, “What do you want me to do?”
Marissia got up on her knees. Her voice was breathy with controlled fear. “Did he take the papers from my desk? Package. All tied together in red ribbon.”
Teia could hear the heavy sigh expelled into the hood over Marissia’s head. The spy mistress said, “Teia, you have to get those papers. I was to deliver them to Karris.”
“What are they?”
“They’re the White’s instructions for her successor. They have everything Karris needs to know how to rule. Secrets. Plans. There are things in there Karris can’t learn any other way.”
Oh, hell no. How was Teia to steal papers from Murder Sharp? “We weren’t sent for the papers, Marissia. We were sent for you. I think Sharp’s just grabbing whatever is lying about.”
Marissia sagged. “Any other day. Any other hour, and all those papers would be locked away safe… No matter. No time.” She bent for a moment. “He’ll take it all to the Old Man’s office anyway. That parchment you grabbed from my desk. It’s a code. Crack it. It’s the combination or key word to theOld Man of the Desert’s office. Teia, that office is here, in the Chromeria. Maybe in this very tower. That means he–or she, we don’t even know for sure that the Old Man of the Desert is a man–is here. But if you open the office without using the code, it’ll wash the room in fire. Everything in it will be destroyed. You can’t let that happen. Not least because the White’s papers will be destroyed too.”
“I’ll find it, I swear. But what–” Teia cut off at the sound of steps outside the room. She tapped Marissia’s shoulder to tell her to be silent, and drafted, disappearing with her own borrowed shimmercloak.
But whoever it was walked past, and Teia heard the banging of the door to the roof. She and thesquad had had quite the fight up there, only hours ago, but only a single Blackguard was standing watch now. Master Sharp said the commanders of the Blackguard would isolate the area until they could examine it to try to figure out what had happened.
“What about you?” Teia asked. “How do we save you?”
A pause. Teia wished she could see Marissia’s face, but the bag stayed perfectly still, giving no hint of her fear or her bravery or her hatred or her desperation.
“We don’t,” Marissia said quietly.
“You’ve seen Sharp’s face. They’re going to kill you.”
Marissia’s head bowed. “Just… pray for me,” she said, and there was her fear again.
“At least let me give you a knife.”
“And what happens to you when this assassin finds your knife on me?” Marissia asked.
Before Teia could protest further, the door opened and closed. Master Sharp was speaking before he was even fully visible. “Give me that cloak.”
“My shimmercloak?” Teia asked.
“It’s not yours. It’s the Order’s, and don’t forget it.”
“I’m the one who stole it! I risked everything to–”
Teia unclasped the choker and handed Master Sharp the burnt-hemmed shimmercloak. He loweredhis own hood, threw Teia‘s cloak on over his own cloak, attaching the choker awkwardly. He pulled his hood back up, but couldn’t lace it properly. He swore.
“What are you doing?” Teia asked.
He swore again, and said to Marissia. “You do other than what I say, and you die now, and not easy. Understand?”
Her head bobbed, the sack trembling as she wept. He slashed the rope between her neck and her wrists, and slung her over his shoulder. “Teia, help me with the cloak.”
Teia spread out the second, bunched cloaked over Marissia’s body. Given that Marissia was slung over his shoulder, it covered her fully, if awkwardly.
“I have to sneak out without a cloak?” Teia asked.
“You go out the way we came in. Outside. Collect the climbing crescents as you go. Be quick. You won’t have long before people start looking up here.” He poked Marissia. “You, when I tell you, you scream that there’s a fire in the White’s quarters. Because there is.”
Oh, that was why he hadn’t gagged Marissia. The Blackguards would recognize her voice.
Still holding Marissia over his shoulder, Master Sharp stooped to pick up the bag full of papers he’d stolen.
“You want me to take the bag?” Teia asked.
He almost handed it to her, then paused. Anxiety hammered great blows against her mask of nonchalance. He said, “Better not. Get climbing.”
“I could bring it to–”
“Now,” he said, and there was quiet menace in his voice. Without waiting, he turned his back, and far more slowly than usual, the cloaks began shimmering, the fox emblem on Teia‘s burnt cloak showing dark gray against the gray and then fading.
The door opened, and Teia smelled smoke.
“Fire! Fire in the White’s quarters!” Marissia shouted. “Fire!”
And then the door closed behind them.
The obvious course was to hurry up and climb down the wall. Once the smoke started billowing out of the White’s windows, eyes would turn toward the Prism’s Tower. Teia couldn’t be clinging to thewalls in full view when that happened.
But Teia had a card to play that Master Sharp didn’t know.
She had her own cloak, the master cloak. She pulled it out of her pack, the material thin and weightless as liquid light. She put it on. Drew the choker around her neck. Pulled up the hood, snapped it closed over her face. She could follow Sharp unseen.
But after extinguishing the fire, the Blackguards would search the tower exhaustively. If Teiafollowed Sharp, the Blackguards would find the climbing crescents stuck to the outside of thetower. The Order had spies in the Blackguard, so they would learn of it, and they would know Teiahad disobeyed.
It wouldn’t be proof that Teia was a spy, but the Order didn’t need proof. They would kill her.
But if she didn’t follow Sharp, they would kill Marissia.
Marissia had ordered Teia to let her die. The old Teia, the slave Teia, would have accepted that order and shrugged off responsibility for what happened next. Teia wasn’t that Teia anymore.
This was war, and Teia was behind enemy lines, alone. She had to make her own decisions and live with the consequences. Like a warrior. Like an adult. Like a free woman.
In the unholy calculus of war, Teia was somehow suddenly worth more than a woman older, wiser, smarter, and better connected than she was. Teia was starting to suspect that the Order was a greater threat to the Chromeria than even the Color Prince. Saving Marissia–even if Teia could figure out how–would jeopardize the Chromeria’s best chance ever to destroy the Order. And only Teia knew now about the Old Man’s office. Only she had the code.
It’s war, T. Friends die.
Jaw clenched, heart leaden, Teia went out onto the balcony, closed the door behind her, and stepped onto the climbing crescents. She descended, taking away the evidence of Marissia’s murder with each step.
It’s war, T. The innocent die. And their friends get vengeance. Later.