TeiaÂ loweredÂ theÂ silk noose toward her damnation. Rope spooled out from careful fingers towardÂ theÂ anxious woman quietly working atÂ theÂ desk below.Â TheÂ target was perhaps thirty, wearing a slave’s dress, her copper-colored hair pulled up in a simple ponytail. AsÂ TeiaÂ watched,Â theÂ 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.
TheÂ woman was Prism Gavin Guile’s room slave. She wasÂ theÂ White’s hidden spy mistress. She wasÂ Teia‘s former superior and her mentor. Marissia put down her whisky and as she sealedÂ theÂ note, she said, “Orholam, forgive me.”
TeiaÂ was usingÂ theÂ shimmercloak that Murder Sharp had given her, but clinging toÂ theironwork onÂ theÂ ceiling like this, it hung away from her body, and it didn’t hideÂ theÂ dangling noose at all.
But Marissia didn’t look up. She putÂ theÂ note aside, and pulled out another sheet of thin paper.
As her mentor leaned forward,Â TeiaÂ dexterously flippedÂ theÂ noose over Marissia’s head and then dropped fromÂ theÂ ceiling, holdingÂ theÂ rope. Draped over a beam above,Â theÂ noose jerked tight around Marissia’s throat and hauled her to her feet.Â TheÂ sharp movement flung her chair backward just asÂ Teia, holdingÂ theÂ other end, swung down and forward.Â TheÂ falling chair cracked acrossÂ Teia‘s shins a moment before she crashed into Marissia.
Somehow,Â TeiaÂ kept from releasingÂ theÂ 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. IfÂ TeiaÂ hadn’t just gotten her shins destroyed, there were a dozen things she would have done. Instead, she clung stupidly toÂ theÂ rope, gasping, tears springing from her eyes, face to face with her old superior.
As Marissia regained her feet,Â TeiaÂ sawÂ theÂ problem:Â she wasn’t as heavy as Marissia. Marissia noticed it too. Though gagging, she grabbedÂ theÂ rope above her head and pulled down with all of her strength.
Something shimmered inÂ theÂ corner ofÂ Teia‘s eye, and Murder Sharp became visible as he took quick steps acrossÂ theÂ carpet. He buried a fist in Marissia’s stomach.
Marissia’s strangled cough blew spit acrossÂ Teia‘s face.Â TheÂ slave woman went slack. In quick motions, Sharp tookÂ theÂ noose fromÂ 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 tightenÂ theÂ noose around her neck.
Master Sharp was gifted with knots.
He forced Marissia to her knees and checked once more that she could breathe–allÂ theÂ fight had gone out of her.
“Not good,” Master Sharp said, turning back toÂ Teia. “Not very good at all.” He was a lean man with sharp features, orangey-red hair, and a short beardÂ theÂ 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,Â theÂ 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 ofÂ theÂ papers,” he continued, “So I’ll accept it.”
“You were hereÂ theÂ whole time?”Â TeiaÂ asked. She setÂ theÂ chair back upright to give herself a moment of not looking atÂ theÂ 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 forÂ theÂ Prism. Who knows what she has access to?”
Secretary? SoÂ theÂ Order didn’t know what Marissia really was. Why then were they kidnapping her?
And why kidnapping?Â TeiaÂ had thought thatÂ theÂ Order only killed people.
Not that they wouldn’t murder Marissia after whatever they had planned here.
HandingÂ TeiaÂ theÂ noose, Murder Sharp strode toÂ theÂ window to look down atÂ theÂ islands. Even from where she was,Â TeiaÂ could see a thick curl of black smoke rising to greetÂ theÂ morning sun.
Earlier this morning, their trainer Tremblefist had blownÂ theÂ black powder stores beneathÂ theÂ cannon tower so Kip andÂ theÂ rest ofÂ theÂ Mighty could escape by sea. He’d probably given his life doing it.Â TheÂ squad had gotten away whileÂ TeiaÂ had chosen to stay here. And now she was doing this. She was a fool.
“We’re lucky,” Sharp said. “TheÂ few Blackguards who weren’t already onÂ theÂ 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. KnockÂ theÂ wind out of her if she screams, he meant.
Why he hadn’t just gagged her?Â TeiaÂ didn’t know, but she didn’t ask. She’d learned not to pushÂ themercurial assassin. Sometimes he had deeper plans. Sometimes he didn’t think ofÂ theÂ obvious. But he never liked being questioned. And there was no up side inÂ TeiaÂ appearing too smart.
Sharp scooped allÂ theÂ papers offÂ theÂ table and into a sack. He opened drawers and grabbed every paper with writing on it, and thumbed through allÂ theÂ blank pages to make sure nothing was hidden from him.
Then he was off, searchingÂ theÂ rest ofÂ theÂ room.
Marissia gave two sharp, little tugs onÂ theÂ rope inÂ Teia‘s hand.
“Shhh,”Â TeiaÂ said.
Marissia waited a few seconds and tugged again. She wanted to say something.
What wasÂ TeiaÂ going to tell her? She hadn’t known Marissia outside of their work, but she’d felt a kinship and deep respect forÂ theÂ woman. They had both been slaves. Both were spies, and Marissia had risen as high as any slave or spy could.
Marissia had once toldÂ TeiaÂ thatÂ theÂ 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 thatÂ theÂ something terrible would be her own kidnapping and likely murder.
Another tug. Master Sharp had ducked intoÂ theÂ slave’s closet offÂ theÂ main room, out of sight and earshot. “He’s gone. Only for a moment,”Â TeiaÂ whispered.
“Third drawer, left side,” Marissia whispered. “Halfway back, straight up. Push hard. Quick!”
Master Sharp had leftÂ theÂ drawer open, soÂ TeiaÂ only had to take one step and stoop.Â TheÂ surface felt flat, but asÂ TeiaÂ pushed hard onÂ theÂ surface, she felt something snap with a slight chalky scent of broken blue luxin, and a tiny section ofÂ theÂ wood sank in. A folded piece of parchment dropped into her hand.
TeiaÂ stepped back into place, stashingÂ theÂ parchment in a pocket. “Got it,” she whispered.
“Tug when you need me–”
Master Sharp stepped back in. “What’s she saying?”
“Um? What?”Â TeiaÂ said. For one terrifying moment, her mind went blank. “Oh, she’s trying to bribe me.”Â TeiaÂ 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 letÂ theÂ man go of course, and killed him as soon as I gotÂ theÂ coin.” Sharp tucked a package of documents tied with red or green ribbon into his sack.Â TeiaÂ was colorblind, so she could only tell it was one orÂ theÂ other. “No harm, right?Â TheOld Man… disagreed. Emphatically.”
He smiled, too broadly. Something about those teeth twistedÂ Teia‘s stomach more than when he’d worn a full set of wolves’ fangs.
“How much did she offer?” he asked.
TeiaÂ froze. There was a hook in that question. MarissiaÂ theÂ Prism’s room slaveÂ mightÂ have squirreled away a small fortune. MarissiaÂ theÂ spy would have saved a lot more, and with her life onÂ theÂ 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!
TeiaÂ said, “She hadn’t mentioned any figures. And I wasn’t listening, anyway. I’m not in this for coin.” ChangeÂ theÂ subject, changeÂ theÂ subject.
“Why are you, then?” Master Sharp asked.
“Are we really going to have this conversation in front of her?”Â TeiaÂ asked. “Now? You said we needed to–”
“We don’t need to worry about her.” His voiceÂ loweredÂ 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?”
TeiaÂ 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 toÂ theÂ Crimson Path eventually.”Â TheÂ 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 toÂ theÂ Prism’s account if we act fast. Please, sir, please.” She broke off as if terrified. It twistedÂ 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 toÂ Teia. “I need to checkÂ theÂ White’s room and make a distraction. Be ready to go quick. If I’m not back in five, untie her, throw her offÂ theÂ balcony as if she suicided, and make your way outÂ theÂ same way we got in.” He threw his hood over his head and pulledÂ theÂ laces throughÂ theÂ grommets quickly, cinchingÂ theÂ mask tight over his nose and mouth, leaving only his eyes clear, and those shadowed underÂ theÂ hood. He turned and began shimmering.
OnÂ theÂ back of his gray cloak,Â theÂ image of a tufted gray owl appeared with its wings spread and talons extended to strike.Â TheÂ image shimmered out of phase withÂ theÂ rest ofÂ theÂ cloak, and disappeared last.
TheÂ door opened, showing a hallway marked with smoke and pools ofÂ bloodÂ and scratches and divots inÂ theÂ stone walls from arrows and bullets fromÂ theÂ Mighty’s battle withÂ theÂ Lightguards earlier. That felt like a lifetime ago. ThenÂ theÂ door shut quietly.
TeiaÂ 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,”Â TeiaÂ said, “What do you want me to do?”
Marissia got up on her knees. Her voice was breathy with controlled fear. “Did he takeÂ theÂ papers from my desk? Package. All tied together in red ribbon.”
TeiaÂ could hearÂ theÂ heavy sigh expelled intoÂ theÂ hood over Marissia’s head.Â TheÂ spy mistress said, “Teia, you have to get those papers. I was to deliver them to Karris.”
“What are they?”
“They’reÂ theÂ 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 wasÂ TeiaÂ to steal papers from Murder Sharp? “We weren’t sent forÂ theÂ 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 toÂ theÂ Old Man’s office anyway. That parchment you grabbed from my desk. It’s a code. Crack it. It’sÂ theÂ combination or key word toÂ theOld Man ofÂ theÂ Desert’s office.Â Teia, that office isÂ here, inÂ theÂ Chromeria. Maybe in this very tower. That means he–or she, we don’t even know for sure thatÂ theÂ Old Man ofÂ theÂ DesertÂ isÂ a man–isÂ here. But if you openÂ theÂ office without usingÂ theÂ code, it’ll washÂ theÂ room in fire. Everything in it will be destroyed. You can’t let that happen. Not least becauseÂ theÂ White’s papers will be destroyed too.”
“I’ll find it, I swear. But what–“Â TeiaÂ cut off atÂ theÂ sound of steps outsideÂ theÂ 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, andÂ TeiaÂ heardÂ theÂ banging ofÂ theÂ door toÂ theÂ roof. She andÂ thesquad had had quiteÂ theÂ fight up there, only hours ago, but only a single Blackguard was standing watch now. Master Sharp saidÂ theÂ commanders ofÂ theÂ Blackguard would isolateÂ theÂ area until they could examine it to try to figure out what had happened.
“What about you?”Â TeiaÂ asked. “How do we save you?”
A pause.Â TeiaÂ wished she could see Marissia’s face, butÂ theÂ 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.
BeforeÂ TeiaÂ could protest further,Â theÂ door opened and closed. Master Sharp was speaking before he was even fully visible. “Give me that cloak.”
“My shimmercloak?”Â TeiaÂ asked.
“It’s not yours. It’sÂ theÂ Order’s, and don’t forget it.”
“I’mÂ theÂ one who stole it! I risked everything to–”
TeiaÂ unclaspedÂ theÂ choker and handed Master SharpÂ theÂ burnt-hemmed shimmercloak. HeÂ loweredhis own hood, threwÂ Teia‘s cloak on over his own cloak, attachingÂ theÂ choker awkwardly. He pulled his hood back up, but couldn’t lace it properly. He swore.
“What are you doing?”Â TeiaÂ 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,Â theÂ sack trembling as she wept. He slashedÂ theÂ rope between her neck and her wrists, and slung her over his shoulder. “Teia, help me withÂ theÂ cloak.”
TeiaÂ spread outÂ theÂ 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?”Â TeiaÂ asked.
“You go outÂ theÂ way we came in. Outside. CollectÂ theÂ 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 inÂ theÂ White’s quarters. Because there is.”
Oh,Â thatÂ was why he hadn’t gagged Marissia.Â TheÂ Blackguards would recognize her voice.
Still holding Marissia over his shoulder, Master Sharp stooped to pick upÂ theÂ bag full of papers he’d stolen.
“You want me to takeÂ theÂ bag?”Â TeiaÂ 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,Â theÂ cloaks began shimmering,Â theÂ fox emblem onÂ Teia‘s burnt cloak showing dark gray againstÂ theÂ gray and then fading.
TheÂ door opened, andÂ TeiaÂ smelled smoke.
“Fire! Fire inÂ theÂ White’s quarters!” Marissia shouted. “Fire!”
And thenÂ theÂ door closed behind them.
TheÂ obvious course was to hurry up and climb downÂ theÂ wall. OnceÂ theÂ smoke started billowing out ofÂ theÂ White’s windows, eyes would turn towardÂ theÂ Prism’s Tower.Â TeiaÂ couldn’t be clinging toÂ thewalls in full view when that happened.
ButÂ TeiaÂ had a card to play that Master Sharp didn’t know.
She had her own cloak,Â theÂ master cloak. She pulled it out of her pack,Â theÂ material thin and weightless as liquid light. She put it on. DrewÂ theÂ choker around her neck. Pulled upÂ theÂ hood, snapped it closed over her face. She could follow Sharp unseen.
But after extinguishingÂ theÂ fire,Â theÂ Blackguards would searchÂ theÂ tower exhaustively. IfÂ Teiafollowed Sharp,Â theÂ Blackguards would findÂ theÂ climbing crescents stuck toÂ theÂ outside ofÂ thetower.Â TheÂ Order had spies inÂ theÂ Blackguard, so they would learn of it, and they would knowÂ Teiahad disobeyed.
It wouldn’t be proof thatÂ TeiaÂ was a spy, butÂ theÂ Order didn’t need proof. They would kill her.
But if she didn’t follow Sharp, they would kill Marissia.
Marissia had orderedÂ TeiaÂ to let her die.Â TheÂ oldÂ Teia,Â theÂ slaveÂ Teia, would have accepted that order and shrugged off responsibility for what happened next.Â TeiaÂ wasn’t thatÂ TeiaÂ anymore.
This was war, andÂ TeiaÂ was behind enemy lines, alone. She had to make her own decisions and live withÂ theÂ consequences. Like a warrior. Like an adult. Like a free woman.
InÂ theÂ unholy calculus of war,Â TeiaÂ was somehow suddenly worth more than a woman older, wiser, smarter, and better connected than she was.Â TeiaÂ was starting to suspect thatÂ theÂ Order was a greater threat toÂ theÂ Chromeria than evenÂ theÂ Color Prince. Saving Marissia–even ifÂ TeiaÂ could figure out how–would jeopardizeÂ theÂ Chromeria’s best chance ever to destroyÂ theÂ Order. And onlyÂ TeiaÂ knew now aboutÂ theÂ Old Man’s office. Only she hadÂ theÂ code.
It’s war, T. Friends die.
Jaw clenched, heart leaden,Â TeiaÂ went out ontoÂ theÂ balcony, closedÂ theÂ door behind her, and stepped ontoÂ theÂ climbing crescents. She descended, taking awayÂ theÂ evidence of Marissia’s murder with each step.
It’s war, T.Â TheÂ innocent die. And their friends get vengeance. Later.