Chapter 1 – Sorin

 

 

Krea bolted down the narrow alleyway with the money purse clenched in her fist. The rattle of metal told her the soldiers were closing the gap. If something didn’t go right in a hurry, she was in trouble. Not the normal kind of trouble, either. The big kind. The kind she might not survive.

As she ran, Krea shoved at any of the heavy doors within easy reach. Surely just one would give. Goddess! Just one! But they were barred tight against thieves. Thieves like her.

Mayhem erupted on the other side of the stone buildings in the wake of her flight, but even the cursing wasn’t loud enough to drown out the shouted orders of the men giving chase.

She couldn’t outrun them, that much was certain, and the sun was still hours away from setting. Krea pushed back the raging panic. She needed to think. It was time for a new tactic. With a hushed moan, she tossed the bag that would feed her for months into the next corridor she passed, marked the spot in her mind, and darted left down a back alley that led to the central courtyard of the nobles. Getting caught would be bad, but getting caught with the evidence would be a death sentence.

“Oh goddess, get me out of this one,” Krea whispered, sliding to a stop in front of a crevice in the massive rock wall. Weather, water, and lack of upkeep had left a jagged opening in the aging wall. It was small, but so was she, and it might just be the sort of thing the massive soldiers would overlook. Krea leaped over to the hiding place to avoid leaving tracks and squeezed into the narrow gap. She just had time to brush away her boot prints before the soldiers rounded the corner. If they were paying attention, they would notice that her prints stopped right across from her hideout, but there was no fixing that now.

As she sat with her knees crushed to her chest, she listened to the clatter of the soldier’s weapons. The first man ran right by. Krea waited. Two more pairs of heavy leather boots trampled past, their wearers huffing like old dogs. It had been a long chase. Still, Krea held her breath. With luck, something she was typically short on, the men had obscured her tracks.

Something smooth and cool slipped along her ankle, and she squeezed her eyes shut as another man ran past. If the guards don’t get me, the snakes will, she thought, not daring to move. Goddess, there has to be an easier way than this. I’m suddenly feeling open to new ideas, if you would like to share them. I know it seems like I only talk to you when I’m in trouble, but that’s not exactly true. She thought about that for a second. Okay, maybe it is—but that’s because I’m usually in trouble and that’s because nothing ever goes my way, so this is sort of your fault.

A rope of cold glass slipped along her sweaty neck and over her shoulder, making her shiver as the snake slid to the ground. Or not, she added, wondering at her own stupidity picking a fight with the goddess while trapped in a snake pit. The thought was short lived, though, because the curses of the captain of the guard were echoing down the narrow alleyway.

“You lost her?” bellowed a man from somewhere at the end of the corridor. “Lose her this time an’ you’ll lose more than your job, ’cause I’ll kill you my own self. It was Lord Blaydin she stole from. Took his travel money for getting his niece to the Royal City. He’ll be bringing humiliation to all of Trasdaak if that girl don’t get to the wedding, and he ain’t laying none of it on me.”

“What he be walking the streets with money like that anyhow?”

“That ain’t your worry,” said the captain as his boots stepped closer. “You sure she came this way?”

Krea thought it was a fair question. Blaydin was a fool, to be sure, but even he should’ve known better than to be on the streets flashing coin like that without at least one guard at his side.

The scent of stale ale and sweat wafted into the dark crevice as the voices drew nearer. She sucked in her breath and waited.

“I got me a good look at her, Captain. Even if we don’t find her, I’ll know her dead-on when next I see her.”

Boots adorned with intricately-woven twists and knots stomped within an arm’s reach of her snake hole. “You idiot!” The captain spat green-tinged saliva from the fandyl herb he chewed. “I’ve had several good looks at her. That’s been a real help now, ain’t it? I don’t care what she looks like. All I care is that she gets found. Where did her tracks leave off?”

A flurry of movement followed the captain’s question. Dust puffed into the crevice, tickling her nose as the boots turned in place. The icy belly of another snake slid along her arm. Krea’s eyes watered as she choked back a cough, but she managed to keep silent. She was in trouble this time, and she knew it. If they caught her, they could put her in prison until a trial date was set, and without a family member to plead her case, she could easily die before that day ever came. A bead of sweat trickled down her temple. She didn’t have sixteen years yet. At least, she didn’t think she did. Either way, she was too young to die in prison, a slave to whatever the guards wanted to do to her. Oh please, Nordu. Help me out of this, she petitioned the goddess again.

A second pair of boots joined the captain’s. “Uh, Captain, we…” Another puddle of saliva hit the ground, barely missing the other man’s shoe.

“Let me guess,” said the captain in the silence that followed. “You idiots ran through here like a bunch of stupid, mindless goats and trampled any trace of her tracks.”

Krea would have enjoyed seeing the looks on their faces were the situation not so dire.

When the other man didn’t answer, the captain continued. “How am I ever getting out of this pisshole of a village working with morons like you? On the goddess! It’s a temple miracle you morons manage to breathe without screwing it up! Spread out. Go in pairs and search every alleyway and crevice. If you come back before nightfall without that little maggot, it had better be to pack your bags. Rolusk, you’re with me.”

Dust marked the guards’ departure. Krea tried to count the footfalls, but she lost track and could only wait to listen for any stragglers. The tiny crevice was barely large enough to hold her, even without the snakes. Her legs ached, and more than one sharp rock was trying to bury itself in her back. Sweat streamed down her face, stinging her eyes, and it seemed as if every breath screamed out her location. Her imagination filled in for what her eyes couldn’t see in the darkness as visions of bugs and rats filled her mind, but she held still and waited. After what felt like an eternity, Krea grabbed what she hoped was a rock and poked as little of her head out as she could. Nothing. She looked for dust, listened for breathing, strained every sense for any sign of the men, but the alleyway remained silent.

With her heart still drumming in her ears, Krea crawled out of the crevice, clenching her rock in her fist. She would skirt back around to the main courtyard and slip outside the city walls. If all went well, she could come back tonight to collect the moneybag she had to toss, assuming it was still there.

The sun sulked low in the sky. The massive walls cast a long shadow across the narrow strip. Krea glanced down at her dusty wool breeches and torn shirt. She half-expected to see spiders making their homes in the folds of her tunic, but given the circumstances, she was in decent shape. Goddess knows she’d looked worse.

Sticking to the shadows, Krea headed back the way she had come in near silence, but she hadn’t gone more than three steps when a rumbling laughter echoed between the walls.

“Skag! Stop where you are,” demanded the captain, stepping out from behind a nook in the wall. His sour expression twisted his face into a permanent sneer as he glared down at her. Krea swallowed hard and tried not to show her terror. It wasn’t enough that he was a huge man by any standard; he was also someone clearly used to having others hurry to do his bidding. Even the dust and mud from the chase seemed an affront to his smooth skin.

This day just keeps getting better, she thought, scrambling for a plan.

He wore a belt knife that dangled obscenely across his front, tucked into a richly-embroidered leather sheath. Even if that were his only weapon, she would still be no match for him, but he also wore a broadsword off one hip and a dagger tucked in behind a coil of rope on the other. Somehow, she knew just by looking that the rope was spelled. She didn’t have time to ponder how a man in his position came by such an expensive weapon, because he was moving. He took two deliberately slow steps forward and spit. “I knew if I waited you would be stupid enough to give yourself away.”

Krea spun around to flee, but her hope of escape died when another soldier stepped around the corner, blocking her other exit. This man’s uniform was plain compared to the captain’s, and he held only a short sword in his hand, but he was enough of a deterrent to stop her cold.

She glanced from one to the other, trying to decide which guard would offer her the best target since she would have to try fighting her way out, but both men were formidable. Without a miracle, she didn’t stand a chance. It was time to start using the only weapon she was skilled at wielding. It was time to lie.

“Why are you chasing me? What do you want? My mother is expecting me home already, and when she finds out that I’ve been hiding from you and your men all this time, she will go right to the Lady Regent.” Krea brushed the dirt off her clothing with an air of haughtiness that matched her tone, if not her appearance.

The captain only sneered. “Is that so? As if a skag like you had a mother. I don’t think the Lady Regent would say much either when I show her the size of the purse you stole, less my cut for having to chase you down. Where is it?”

Krea glared with as much venom as she could muster, and then finally shrugged. “I don’t know what purse you’re talking about.”

“Rolusk, go get that bag.”

The second guard started toward her and Krea saw her opening. With an aim worthy of any grown man, she pitched her stone through the air, cracking the stocky man in the head. He slapped his hand to his temple and leaned forward, blood already running between his fingers. Krea ran. She was nearly past the stunned guard when her flight came to a sudden, bone-jarring stop.

The air rushed out of Krea’s lungs as she jerked backward, landing on her back with a hard thud. Still dazed and sucking wind, she grabbed frantically at the rope that encircled her arms and chest, but it refused to yield.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” berated the guard, yanking her back to the ground just as Krea found her feet. “This is a spelled rope, skag. Not even sludge like you can get free of this one. Now give me the bag.”

Krea’s heart drummed in her ears. She had been in bad spots before, but never one this bad, not since escaping the trader. She tried to keep calm, but her effort was in vain. Panic pulsed through her body like blood. She had to control it. She couldn’t lose control. Bad things happened when she panicked.

“I told you already, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said through clenched teeth. “Let me go. I demand an audience with the Lady.”

You demand?” The captain walked toward her, coiling the extra rope as he went. “I don’t accept demands from filthy scabs.” Krea tried to get to her feet again, using the rope for leverage, but he just jerked his arm and sent her back to the ground. “Stay there. It’s where you belong, wallowing in the dirt like an animal.” With a flip of his wrist, the guard coiled the rope she held in her fists back around her wrists. She tried to free her hands, but the spell held them tight.

She could hardly breathe as the man reached down to search for the missing moneybag. When his search yielded no purse, he sneered as if he had just touched something vile.

“What did you do with it? Tell me now, and I won’t break your arm.”

Krea sucked in a shaky breath. Her control was slipping. The rage building inside made it hard to think, to breathe. When she spoke, her voice trembled from the strain of suppressed fury. “I have no bag. I have no money. I have nothing. You will have to go rob someone else.”

A sharp kick in the ribs left her gasping for air. Krea curled up in pain and tried to block the second assault, but another boot caught her in the back. The stocky guard was back, and he wasn’t the least bit impressed with her impeccable aim. Before the third kick could land, Krea flipped onto her back and planted both feet square on her attacker’s knees. He hit the ground with a grunt, but before either of them could get their bearings, the captain’s booming voice broke the impasse. He pulled the rope tight and pressed the side of her face into the dirt with his boot. A wad of saliva hit the ground so close to her nose that tiny clots of mud splattered her cheek.

“That’s enough,” he yelled, putting just enough weight on his right foot to keep her still. “She probably left it in that pisshole she was hiding in. Rolusk, go get it.”

“I don’t know, Captain,” said the guard. “That looks like a snake pit to me. I don’t want to get bit by no chey.”

The captain let out a slow hiss and turned, his boot twisting her face into the dirt that much more as he moved. “You stupid… If there were chey in that wall, do you really think this skag would have stayed in there as long as she did? Mother of the goddess, how did I get picked for this assignment? Now move!”

Rolusk’s boots passed in front of her and disappeared.

They didn’t have the bag she tossed and that was good, but her fragile hold on the burning rage within was slipping fast. She had to rein it in. No matter what, she knew she couldn’t let herself get out of control. If she did, there was no telling what would happen. It would be like last time, and she couldn’t imagine living through that horror again.

Krea tried to slow her breathing, but the dirt in her nose and mouth forced her to take shallow, panting breaths. The marks of the man’s kicks still pulsed with pain. She was scrambling for a solution when Rolusk’s scream cut the silence.

“Captain, Captain!” he yelled. “I’m bit. Nordu save me. I’m bit. I’m a dead man. I’m dead.”

The captain never moved. “You don’t know it was a chey. Calm down. Running around screaming won’t help.”

“I’m dead.”

“You don’t sound dead,” said the captain, but Krea could hear the truth in his tone. A chey bite was fatal.

“I’m good as dead. I’m…” The guard never finished his sentence. The powerful poison was already taking its toll. Krea heard him thump on the ground, already unable to control his muscles.

“Listen, maggot, you already cost me half a day and now a good man. Tell me where you hid the purse, or I’ll drag you out of here and sell you to the first trade clan that comes along. Even a skag like you will fetch a good price to that lot.”

A flood of horrific memories shattered Krea’s thin tendrils of self-control. Like a searing heat, rage consumed her. She felt helpless in its path. From a place deep inside that she didn’t understand, something foreign and violent burst forth.

Krea opened her mouth to scream, but a beastly shriek replaced her human voice. As if lifted by an invisible force, the captain flew back against the wall. Without knowing how she got there, Krea was on her feet.

No! she thought. No! Not again. But she could do nothing to stop the destructive force that ripped through her body. The world before her blurred and rippled. In a moment of clarity, she saw the spelled rope lying in a heap on the ground, but she couldn’t understand how it got there.

The captain’s stunned face drifted through her line of sight, then disappeared again. He suddenly seemed so small. Then other faces joined his. They were backing away and throwing their hands up in signs of protection, but then they blurred again.

I have to stop it, Krea pleaded with herself. Goddess help me. I must stop! She tried to cry out, but where her voice should have been, another shriek pierced the air. The burning rage inside suddenly became a need to be free, a desire so strong it consumed her. She wanted to shed her body like she might shed a coat on a summer day.

Krea threw her arms up and made to launch into the air, the alley a blur that now seemed like a bad dream. A tiny voice of her old self struggled to stop the madness. She shrieked and the voice fell silent. Then her whole world fell silent.

Around her, the soldiers and gathering merchants still stared up in horror. They yelled and pointed, but the only sound she heard was the hum of a melody so faint it could have been a trick of the wind.

Krea tried to back away, but the melody streamed into her mind and left her paralyzed as it floated around her, dancing, breathing with a life all its own. Through the blur, the crowd parted. Words formed in her mind, but they were not hers. She didn’t know them.

A man stepped through the opening in the crowd, unafraid, his eyes a sea of serenity. As he drew closer, Krea realized that the words now washing through her were his. He grew taller as he approached, until at last he stood right in front of her, gazing down with eyes the color of birch.

Still chanting, he reached for her face. Krea told her body to move, to run, to block his touch, but she stood rooted in place by the milky song. The man touched his gloved fingers to her forehead and finally fell silent. As the strange melody floated away, Krea stared in shock at the man before her. He wore the clothing of a noble, but had the presence of a soldier. His dark brown hair was cut and combed like a man of means, but his skin was tanned from days spent in the sun. She had no idea what he was.

“What has this girl been charged with that would warrant such treatment, Captain?” he asked without turning around, his voice barely above a whisper.

Krea searched the crowd for the captain and finally spotted him by the far wall, still clutching the tattered end of the spelled rope. He brushed away some of the dust that caked his fine clothing and glared back at the man. “She is a thief.”

The man turned to face him. “And what has she stolen? Her clothing, perhaps? It doesn’t appear to be worth stealing, but I see nothing else of value on her.”

Krea glanced down at her tattered shirt, so shredded that it barely covered her. Her breeches looked almost as bad. When she reached up to pull what was left of her sleeve back onto her shoulder, Krea realized for the first time that she was trembling.

“She stole a money purse, Tal Sorin.”

“Do you have the evidence, or is it now the custom of the guard to make accusations merely to justify their lusts?”

The captain’s face flushed red with rage. “I want nothing to do with a mongrel bitch like…like that thing. She isn’t even human. I simply want justice. She has taken a moneybag and broken a spelled rope, and my trusted liege man there will die from the snakebite he took because of her. When he does, she will be charged with his murder.”

As one, the crowd turned to the man curled up on the ground. Convulsions wracked his body. Sweat and vomit turned the dirt to mud that clung to his skin in dark splotches. The crowd slowly backed away, as if the dying man’s symptoms might be contagious.

“You say he was bitten?” asked the noble, finally taking his hand off Krea’s forehead. “By what? A chey?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” said the captain.

“A chey that this girl sent to kill him? She commands the chey?”

The unfortunate guard convulsed, the action slapping his face against the putrid ground, and then fell into the stillness of death. The crowd’s collective intake of breath marked the man’s passing.

“Where exactly did he get bit?” asked the noble, turning back to the captain.

“He was bit looking for the purse this maggot stole,” said the captain, jutting his head toward the small crevice in the wall.

“Sent there by you?”

The captain only stared. He was caught and he knew it.

“Captain, your prisoner has no valuables, stolen or otherwise, and this guard’s death is on you, not her. As to your rope, if a girl can break it, the problem is yours. You have no grounds to hold her, unless you would like to seek rodulin with the Lady.”

The captain glared from the man to Krea, but remained silent.

“Good. I am sure the Lady has better things to do than mediate such trivial matters on as fine a night as this will be. I will take the child with me and see to it that she doesn’t provoke a chey into biting any more of your men.”

When the captain still only stared in shock, Sorin gave him a nod and turned to Krea. “Come,” he instructed, grabbing her elbow.

No, Krea screamed in her mind, but no words came out of her mouth. As if driven by a will of their own, Krea’s legs obediently fell into step beside the nobleman. Like a flock of birds, the crowd parted before them in a flurry of muttered curses and protective signs. The man took no notice as he steered Krea out of the maze of alleyways back into the main square and finally to a powerful bay horse so dark he was almost black. The horse snorted at their approach and eyed Krea the way all horses did, but at the man’s soft words, the animal quieted.

When the man moved to hoist Krea up behind the bay’s saddle, she finally found her voice. “Horses don’t like me,” she stammered, pushing away from his guiding arm.

“Horses don’t understand you. Drindoc will allow you to ride. Get on. My estate is too far away to reach by sunset if we walk, and you must get out of the village now,” he said.

Krea knew she should protest further, but the noble was right. She had to leave, and she had to leave now. And a ride out of the town proper didn’t mean she was staying with the man. So she started plotting her escape as she allowed him to lift her onto the horse before climbing into the saddle in front of her.

She had never ridden a horse before. The bay’s powerful muscles rippled as he spun around at the nobleman’s command, and without the saddle as a barrier, Krea could feel every movement the horse made. She tried to sit back so she wouldn’t have to touch the man in front of her, but when the horse dropped his haunches to launch into a gallop, she nearly slid off his rear. Only the man’s quick reflexes saved her.

“You will have to hold on. This saddle isn’t meant for two people.”

Reluctantly, Krea grabbed the man’s shirt on either side, but as soon as the horse took off again, she reached around his waist and locked her hands together. Soft linen from his chemise brushed against her face, smelling of cedar and soap. And money. This noble sure didn’t miss any meals. Out of habit, she fingered his moneybag, but a sharp slap on her hand ended that. The intricately-carved hilt of his sword bounced against her arm as Drindoc ran, but she didn’t dare even touch it. Not for lack of wanting to, though.

As the village faded into the distance, Krea finally fell into the horse’s gait. She wasn’t confident enough to let go of the nobleman completely, but she released her death grip and sat back enough to glance around. The fields glowed in the burnt orange sunset. In the morning, flowers would dot the plains in an array of violet, red, yellow, and blue. Summer was her favorite time of the year. It was the one season where shelter wasn’t a problem, finding clothing was manageable, and the merchant trade made funds easy to come by. Of course, today hadn’t exactly fallen into the easy category, but then she hadn’t been going after a farmer’s purse, either.

What exactly had happened anyway? It had been an easy lift. Lord Fatbottom was so busy boasting about his upcoming trip to the capital that he wouldn’t have noticed her had she been sprouting fangs and dripping venom. She was sure she had managed a clean lift when Captain Spitty started pounding after her. Sure. Stealing from the Regent’s brother may not have been one of her smartest choices, but how could she have walked away from that? It was too easy. Maybe that was the problem. It was too easy.

At least the strange noble’s spell was wearing off enough that she could think for herself. He was taking her to his manor and judging from his fine clothing, it would likely be a lavish estate. The question was what did he want? A better question was how long would it take to get away from him? He was an older man, so she guessed he would have a wife and children of his own, possibly grown children, but that didn’t stop a person from exploiting free labor when he saw it.

Of one thing she was certain: Whatever this man was, magic lurked in his presence, and magic was something she wanted no part of.

“You needn’t take me all the way to your manor,” Krea said, her voice lurching with the horse’s stride. “I have nothing to give you in token for your help, so I can only hope not to bother you further by getting off here.” She started to push away so she could jump, but the horse never slowed.

The man reached back and held her in place. “No, child. You need to come with me. I mean you no harm, but we need to talk.”

“About what? The guard accused me falsely. I have no money purse, as you can see.” Krea tried to pull her sleeve back up and nearly lost her balance in the process. To save herself, she grabbed the first thing her hand hit, which happened to be the hilt of the man’s sword. Jumping from the horse was one thing; falling off was something else altogether.

Immediately, the man reached behind him to keep her from falling, and then yanked her hand off his sword. “Just sit still and hold on. We will discuss what happened when we get there. Right now, all you need to worry about is keeping still so you don’t lame my horse.“ As an afterthought, he added, “And keeping your hands away from my belongings. You understand me?”

Krea didn’t answer, but she didn’t try to move away when he let go of her. Any sorcerer was bad, but an angry one was worse.

“Almost there,” he said, finally slowing to a gentle trot after what felt like a day. Her legs burned from rubbing against the horse’s sweaty body, but she couldn’t imagine it was any better for the horse.

The sun was already dropping over the horizon as they emerged from the tree-lined road into the open field in front of his manor. It wasn’t what she expected. It was nice. Nicer than anything she had ever been in, but not the monstrous mansion she had envisioned. A boy not much younger than Krea, dressed in short breeches and a woven green tunic, ran out of the stable to greet his master. He said nothing to Krea, but his confusion as he swept her shredded attire was more than evident.

The man swung his leg over the horse’s neck and hopped down with practiced ease. Krea didn’t do as well. He reached up to help her off the bay, but she was determined to see herself down. Unfortunately, her legs didn’t share her vision. She would have fallen on her rear had the man not caught her.

He made no comment. Instead, he handed the horse’s reins to the boy and gave the animal an affectionate pat. “He needs to be walked out, Troulas. And be sure to rub him down before you put him away tonight. He worked hard to get both of us here so quickly.”

Troulas nodded and headed toward the stable with the sweat-lathered bay in tow. Krea watched the horse walk away. He was magnificent. His deep brown coat rippled in the last shreds of sunlight, and she was wondering why a horse like that would ever agree to let someone on his back, when a hand fell on her shoulder. She jumped.

“Relax,” said the noble, a touch of irritation in his voice. “Come inside. You must be hungry, and you need to get out of those clothes before they fall apart completely. I’m surprised they survived the ride.”

Krea stepped away and stared. She hadn’t really looked at him before now. He was older than she had originally thought. She guessed him to have over forty years, maybe fifty. His light brown eyes were almost too light. Although his well-muscled arms and chest peeked out from beneath his fine clothing, he did nothing to make himself appear larger or more formidable in the usual fashion of a nobleman. Where men of authority usually draped themselves in thick layers of adornment, a presence of power hung over this man like a cloak.

Still, she didn’t follow. He stared beneath his thick, scrunched brows. “If I intended you harm, I would have done it already.”

He had a point. Besides, how far would she get if she tried to run away right in front of him? He could probably cast a spell and cause the ground to open up and swallow her whole. No, she would have to bide her time and wait for just the right moment. At least this time when she followed him, it was of her own doing.

The house was large, but simple in its furnishings. Before they had even crossed the first room, an old woman appeared from nowhere to take the man’s sword and dagger. He gave her his short coat as well, but kept his riding gloves on. The servant glanced over at Krea, then back to the master of the house, her question evident on her creased face.

“Do you think you can find her something more fitting to wear, Mother?” the man asked with a smile.

Krea snapped around in disbelief. The woman was obviously a house servant of no relation, yet the man had just offered her the highest title of respect. When Krea turned back to the woman, she was smiling as well. “I will see to it, tal. Will you take supper now?”

The master glanced at Krea, then back to the woman. “I’m sure I can find enough to eat on my own. Don’t raise Kole.”

“Too late,” said a weather-beaten man standing by the door. “Kole is raised. I thought you was overnighting in the village.”

“There was a…an incident. I had to change my plans.”

Kole peered at Krea with raised eyebrows. “Obviously.”

“Mind yourself, Kole. The master has a guest,” chided the woman with a scowl.

“Old woman, come now.” Kole’s face cracked into a barely discernable smile. “He ain’t the crowned prince, and she ain’t exactly a lady.”

“Kole!” snapped the woman in horror.

Krea glanced over at the master and was shocked to see his smile. “Be nice,” he said. “She’s had a bad day.” His reproof was mild, but sufficient. The servant snorted, but made no further comment toward Krea as the old woman clicked her tongue and retreated through the double doors.

“Don’t worry about supper, Kole. I’ll find something on my own,” said the master, turning back to Krea.

“What?“ said Kole. “You think if you ain’t here, the rest of us don’t bother eating? Honestly, Sorin. I think you’re turning into a regent bred. If you can find your way to the breakfasting room without a escort, I’ll bring you some supper.”

Krea waited for the master to cast a spell over the rude servant, turning him into a mute or something, but Sorin only laughed. “I think I can manage that, thank you,” he said, and then waved Krea through the double doors. A little disappointed, she followed.

He led her through two more rooms and finally motioned toward a small round table pushed up against a wall dotted with small glass windows. A meadow cut by a small stream was barely visible in the fading light. It was already too dark to make out many of the details outside, but it would surely be a breathtaking view in the morning light.

Still leery, Krea pulled out the chair closest to the door and sat with enough distance between herself and the table to be able to make a quick break, if needed. Just because he didn’t change the rude servant into stone didn’t mean he couldn’t.

The nobleman reappeared from around a corner, holding two goblets. He placed one on the table in front of her and took a long drink of the second one before setting it next to its mate.

The flicker of the oil lamp cast eerie shadows across the man’s face and made his expression unreadable. She waited for him to speak, but he continued to study her in silence as he leaned against the wall. This game, at least, she knew. Like him, Krea held her tongue.

Kole entered through a back door, carrying a tray loaded with food. “I see you already helped yourself to spirits,” he complained. “But looking at you, I got feelings you’ll be wanting more.” The servant placed two large bowls of hot soup on the table, along with a small bowl of fruit, a plate of bread, and cut cheese before turning to leave. “Don’t bother calling for me if you’ve need of something, because I’m away to bed. Just leave the dishes. Someone will see to them in the morning. I’m up early tomorrow, getting ready for the hands you hired out of the village. I think you should know about the serfs. They ain’t happy about you bringing in them outsiders. Also, the old woman put clothes for the girl in the room right of the stairs.”

“I’m more than aware of the serfs’ concerns, Kole, but thank you for bringing it to my attention yet again.”

“I don’t know why you couldn’t of got help without bringing in foreigners from Tisher. The Empire is seeing enough trouble from the north, and now they are invading from the south.“

“No one is invading from the south, Kole. They are just men looking for work.”

Kole grunted and dropped a spoon in front of Krea. “Them Tishers is a threat—to the serfs, that is. All our people got is the land they live on. If you don’t think them capable enough to bring in a harvest themselves, they worry that you will replace them. Then, they will have nothing. Besides, outsiders bring bad luck. And mark my words, they will come with a fair share of spies.”

Sorin gave Kole his full attention. “Kole, I know about serfs. I’ve had serfs under my command a few times now in the long course of my life. The Tishers are not going to replace anyone, and they are not spies. I am looking forward to a long growing season, and the sooner we can get those crops up, the sooner we can replant. With a kiss from the goddess, we will get three good runs out of this season, maybe even four.”

“May as well get used to them Tishers, since we’ll be living there soon enough with the way the torbadyn has took the Capital and all.” The servant handed his master a spoon, and with another grunt stomped out of the room. Sorin just shook his head and took the chair opposite Krea. She noticed that he didn’t take off his gloves to eat. Fortunately, the rich smell of soup quickly stole her attention. Besides, who was she to comment on the manners of a nobleman?

The soup was hot and delicious, brimming with chunks of what, she didn’t care. It must have been cooking for days. She hadn’t eaten since the morning, and that was just the bits of bread cake that the innkeeper didn’t deem fit to serve his guests. At first, she tried to eat slowly so as not to give away her desperate state, but within minutes she gave up the pretense and started wolfing down the meaty meal. After all, who was she pretending for? The nobleman? He ate quietly, his watchful gaze alert to her every move.

When at last she shoved the rest of a half-eaten roll into her pocket and pushed the empty bowl away, Sorin scooted his own bowl to the side and once again leaned across the table.

“My name is Sorin,” he began, his tone abrupt but not unkind.

Krea nodded. “I figured that out.”

“I imagine you did. You have a name, I assume?”

“Krea.”

“Okay. Krea.” Sorin shifted and crossed his arms. “Do you know who I am?”

She glanced up, then looked away. “You are the master of this estate, obviously. I’m guessing you’re a steward of the Lady, or something like that. You’re also a…” Krea broke off. Was it an offense to call a sorcerer a sorcerer?

“I’m also a what?” Sorin prompted when Krea fell silent.

Krea glanced at the door. It was close, but not close enough to get a solid lead. Why was she forever in these situations? Sorin shifted in his chair, and she turned so one leg was to the side of the chair, ready to run before she answered. “You’re also a sorcerer.”

She waited for him to hurl a ball of fire at her, but Sorin only frowned. “No, child. You missed your guess there. I’m not exactly a steward of the Lady, either. I’m more like a steward to the Empress. Do you know what I am?”

A steward to the Empress! Krea dragged her eyes away from the rigid man and grabbed her mug. She didn’t know what was in it, but she had a feeling she would need whatever it was. “If you’re not a sorcerer, I don’t know what you are,” she said, taking a long drink.

His piercing eyes held her as he dropped his hands on the table again and leaned in toward her. “Then let me ask you this. Do you know what you are?”

Her heart jumped in her chest. He had been there in the alleyway. He had to know what she was, so why was he asking her? Was he trying to humiliate her? Krea focused on keeping her expression blank, but her voice betrayed her. “I’m a changeling,” she admitted in hardly more than a whisper.

His disapproval was obvious. She wasn’t surprised. No one liked a changeling. Everyone knew that when the faerie inside decided to show itself, death would follow.

“Tell me where you came from.”

She was suddenly exhausted. Part of her wanted to tell the strange man everything. His tone and demeanor seemed to beg her confidence, but her more cautious side won out. Krea sat back in her chair and surveyed her situation. She had just eaten the first real meal she had touched in weeks. Running tonight would be a waste of time. She didn’t know where she was, and the moonless night was as dark as any she had seen. No. She needed to leave early in the morning, but she would have to watch for Kole.

With her decision made, Krea met the man’s level gaze and told her story, or as little of it as she thought she could get away with. “I don’t know where I came from. My earliest memory is of a Norwist trader who was going to sell me to a farmer for supplies. I hid in a dumping ground outside of the town for two weeks, and then I ran. I think I had seven or eight years when that happened. I moved from one town to another, until I came to Trasdaak. I’ve lived here for five years now.”

“So you never had a caller?”

Krea scowled. “What? You mean like one of Nordu’s chosen?”

Sorin nodded. “That is exactly what I mean. Do you ever remember having a caller?”

“I’ve never even seen one up close. Only from far away when they come to visit the regent. Why would I have a caller? I’m nothing. I’m just a…I’m just Krea.”

The man peered at her in the lamplight. When he finally spoke, his tone seemed almost sad. “Krea, you are much more than nothing, and you are not a changeling. You are kyrni, and apparently you are a kyrni without a caller.”

Krea blinked at him for a second before getting her bearings again. He thought she was one of the magical kyrni? The man clearly suffered from a mental disease of some sort. Since he was also a sorcerer, despite his claims otherwise, staying the night might not be an option after all. She gauged the distance to the door once again. Maybe, if she could just get a bit closer to it, she could make it before he caught her.

“Ah,” she said with a nod. “That explains it. I’m a kyrni. You found me out.” She stood, dragged her torn sleeve back onto her shoulder, and began edging toward the door. “It would probably be best if we kept this between us. My thanks for the meal. I can find my own way out.” With her heart racing, she continued toward the door, hoping to appear far more confident than she felt.

“Think about it, Krea. Think about your life. It will all fit.”

“You’re right,” she said, almost there. He hadn’t thrown a spell at her yet. That was good. She pressed forward. “It makes perfect sense. My thanks also for clearing that up.” But even as she reached for the handle, a small voice nagged at her to consider his words. She shut it up immediately. Whatever he had was quite possibly contagious. She wasn’t ready to lose her mind for one good meal. Before another doubt could enter her thoughts, she twisted the handle and bolted through the opening.

Very few lights lined the corridors, and she was turned around before she knew it. According to her memory, she should have been outside already, but instead she found herself standing in the middle of a giant feasting area of some sort. An oil lamp from the corridor cast pale yellow light into the room, but it barely reached beyond the doorway. She could just make out two massive tables with legs like tree trunks. Judging from the musty smell, the room saw very little use. At the other end, light leaked in around massive double doors that clung to the walls with huge iron claws. There was no point in even trying to open those monsters, so she spun back around. She didn’t get far. Sorin stood near the doorway, watching her. The dim light masked his expression.

“Just think about it, child,” he insisted in the same patient tone he had used in the breakfasting room. “I know you have questions about yourself that you can’t answer. Things happen that you can’t explain. Where are your parents? Why can you see and hear things long before anyone else can? What is that wild thing within you that nearly escaped in the alleyway today? The reason you have no answers is because you are not human. You are kyrni. You are one of the protected of Nordu.”

Krea backed up until she felt the biting wood of the table at her back. The man was serious. He really believed her to be a kyrni. He thought she could transform into the mythical beasts of the old world. She stared back at him and frowned. Sure, there were things in her life that didn’t make sense. What had happened in the alleyway was one of them, but how could she be a kyrni and not even know it?

“What would you know about the kyrni?” she demanded, unsure what else to do with the whispers of doubt that threatened her resolve.

Sorin cocked his head to the side and sighed. “I know about the kyrni because I am a caller.”

“No, you can’t be right.” She scooted along the table, but her mind chewed on his explanation despite her efforts to refuse it. Magic terrified her. She dreaded the day when a sorcerer’s magic would release the fae hiding inside. His theory just wasn’t possible. “I can’t be a kyrni. The kyrnis’ faces are marked with the pattern of their beasts. I have no markings, not even a birthmark. Besides, how could I be able to transform into a dragon or something, and not know it?”

“It is called a counter.” When Krea only stared in confusion, Sorin stepped into the room and clarified. “The animal that the kyrni shifts into is called their counter, not their beast. As to your markings, a kyrni doesn’t reflect the skin pattern of their counter until after their first complete shift. Thank the goddess, you have not yet shifted. You have no pattern. Yet.”

Krea’s hand fell on a chair and she stopped. “What do you mean? How can you be so sure I haven’t shifted? Maybe I’ve shifted lots of times. Maybe I was trying to turn into a faerie in the alleyway.”

“Because you’re not a changeling. There is no faerie living inside of you. And because if you had shifted without a caller to bring you back, you would remain in your counter form forever.” Sorin paused. “But you came very close to shifting today. Krea, come away from the table so we can talk about this. How many years do you have?”

Krea held her ground and shrugged. “I don’t know. I have set myself a birthday that gives me fifteen years, but I don’t know for sure.” Her confession of a self-assigned birthday suddenly made her feel stupid, but Sorin didn’t seem to notice. He only nodded.

“That’s probably about right. You probably have closer to sixteen years, actually, but you are close either way. The kyrni usually shift around their sixteenth year.”

Another stretch of silence filled the room as both of them tried to make sense of their conversation. At last, Sorin crossed his arms and leaned back against the door frame. “You must go see the elders. They will know what to do. And the trip can’t wait. We need to leave tomorrow.”

“Why do I have to see an elder? What did I do?”

“Krea, please. If you won’t come over here, at least stop walking away. This conversation is for you and me, not the entire household.”

Reluctantly, she pulled out a ponderous chair and dropped into it. The sound of the wood dragging along the floor echoed in the cavernous room. Sorin ducked around the doorway and reappeared shielding a burning lighting stick. Her guess at the room’s lack of use was confirmed when he had to dip the wall lamp’s wick into the oil several times before it would stay lit. Finally, he nursed the flame until the lamp threw a yellow glow across a good part of the room.

Two tables ran the length of the room, and at the end opposite the giant doors was a raised dais with yet another smaller table at its center. Intricate carvings adorned the front, and if the light wasn’t deceiving her, maybe even curtains. She had been right about the giant doors at the far end. She would never have managed to move them, but closer to the dais was another door, a smaller door, and she would bet her boots that it opened near the kitchen. She had run in a circle. How typical.

Sorin finished adjusting the lamp and turned back to Krea. “What do you know of the kyrni?”

Krea shrugged. “Nothing. Just stories.”

“Then you don’t know that you aren’t one, do you?”

That gave her pause. “I know I’m not half dragon. I know I hate magic and it hates me.”

“You know nothing.” Sorin crossed over to the table. When Krea started to get up, he held out his hands and slowly pulled out the chair next to her. “Be still and listen. The kyrni unite with a caller when the kyrni has ten years and the caller about seventeen. The caller is responsible for teaching the kyrni the necessary magic before the first shift.“ Sorin slipped into the chair and continued. “You are probably months, maybe even weeks away from making your first shift, and you know nothing. You are in a dangerous position, and I don’t know how to help you.”

“But you helped me today,” Krea said, pulling at her torn tunic again. “I don’t know what you did, actually, but somehow it helped.” The idea of going to see an elder scared her. Elders ruled over courts, and courts sentenced people to death. No matter how she looked at it, going to see an elder was a bad idea. Apparently, Sorin didn’t think so. He was shaking his head.

“I called you back to keep you from making the shift, aye, but had you been fully mature and ready to shift, I could not have done it. We are not bonded. And I wasn’t there to meld before you started. Besides that, shifting should never be done without training. You need a caller.” The man watched her with disturbing intensity. “You need to see the elders.”

Krea looked at her hands, then her feet. Her torn breeches and tunic hung over a perfectly human body—a skinny body, she had to admit—but human nonetheless. She ran her fingers through her short wheat-blonde hair. No scales. No feathers. Just dirt and a strand from a spider’s web. She was human, yet she knew she wasn’t. She had always known she wasn’t.

For the last two years, strange things had been happening to her and she had finally decided that she must be a changeling. She waited every day for the evil faerie living inside her to show itself. Now, here was this man telling her that she was not a dreaded changeling at all, but one of the sacred kyrni. She couldn’t even imagine such a thing. It was too much to hope for.

No, he had to be tricking her somehow, and her best course of action was to put as much distance between him and the village of Trasdaak as she could. She clearly wasn’t getting out of the house tonight, so tomorrow she would leave before the sun touched the sky.

“I’m tired,” Krea announced, and it wasn’t even a lie. “Can I sleep in your barn tonight? I won’t take anything, or bother the animals.” Now that, she admitted to herself, may have been a stretch.

A knowing smile crept across the man’s weathered face, but what he knew was anyone’s guess. Did he doubt her ability to keep her thieving hands off his property, or had he guessed her intentions? His expression remained unreadable. He simply stood and motioned toward the door. “Esmeri has prepared a room for you, I think. And hopefully a washbasin. I will take you to it.”

A real room in a real house! Krea could hardly believe it. Getting out of the barn without Kole catching her would probably have been easier, but there was no way she was turning down a room with a bed. She made it as far as the doorway when an ugly thought suddenly seized her. With a quick sidestep, Krea was back against the table, glaring at him. “Is it your room?” she demanded, afraid she already knew the answer.

Sorin acted as if she had punched him. Disgust rippled across his face before he managed to bring his reaction under control. Relief and hurt battled for Krea’s attention as she marked his reaction. So, he was no different than the captain of the guard, after all. To him she was a vile vagrant of society, worse than any disease, kyrni or not. That was fine. She would take advantage of a real bed and the warm food and probably anything small and valuable she could manage to lift before she took her leave.

Doing her best to hide her anger, Krea slipped past him and ducked through the doorway. When his hand fell on her shoulder, she jumped away.

“Krea, this is going to be difficult. So many things you should know, that you need to know, and I am not even sure how to start teaching you. But this, at least, I can clear up. I can feel your anger and confusion, so let me just…there is nothing wrong with you. Please understand that even if you weren’t kyrni, I would no more bed you than I would my grandchild, if I had one. I know it is hard to believe it when you look at me, but I am a very old man and you are a child. But more than that, you are kyrni. You are one of the magical race, and to mix human blood with the blood born in magic is contemptible in the eyes of the goddess. It is unthinkable.”

“Then how are the kyrni made?”

“That is a story for another night. Right now, you look ready to drop. Come to the room Esmeri set for you. No harm will come to you that you don’t bring on yourself.”

Whatever that meant! She waited and then fell in step behind him as he led the way through the barely-lit corridors of his manor.

Like the rest of the house, the room he took her to was simply adorned, but designed for comfort. A bed rested below the window for the summer months, and two pillow-lined chairs sat next to the unused fireplace. In the far corner next to a small chest was a huge tub of water large enough for her to climb into and probably even sit down in. A smaller cauldron of boiling water hung by a swinging arm over a small fire.

“Esmeri must have raised the house staff,” Sorin commented, taking in the bath. “Be sure to snuff the fire as soon as you are done, or it will get too hot in here to sleep. You’ll find something to sleep in on the bed and a change of clothes in the chest or wardrobe; I’m not sure which.”

Krea nodded, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the tub.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” Sorin said just before he closed the heavy door behind him.

She listened for a lock to click into place, but the only sound was the man’s soft footsteps disappearing down the hall.

With near reverence, Krea walked over to the tub of water and dragged her fingers across the surface. She had never had a bath like this before. The closest thing to warm water she had ever washed in was the shallows of the stream in midsummer. In a matter of seconds, she shrugged out of what was left of her clothes, snuffed the fire, and swung the arm holding the small pot over the large tub. She poured half of the boiling water out into the bathing tub and then stepped into it with a sigh of pleasure.

The tub was just large enough for her to sit in if she kept her legs pulled to her chest, and that was exactly what she did, enjoying every second. Not until she had to add the last of the hot water to the cooling bath did she actually wash. When the temperature and color of the water finally forced her out, Krea was exhausted, but exhausted in the most wonderful way she could ever remember.

Cool night air blew in the open window, carrying with it the scent of horses and flowers. She made quick use of the small towel hanging by the bath. As soon as she was dry enough, she snatched the sleeping gown off the bed and rubbed the soft cotton across her face. She wanted nothing more than to slip into the delicate nightshirt and disappear under the covers until the heat from the afternoon sun drove her out of them. Unfortunately, she couldn’t. With a sigh, she dropped the nightshirt over the chair and pulled open the wardrobe door. Just as Sorin had promised, folded in a neat pile was a clean pair of dark-brown wool breeches, a light-green linen chemise, and a soft tan woven tunic. A pair of sandals topped the pile, but Krea set them aside. She preferred her boots to sandals any day. Besides, she had nearly died getting those boots, and she wasn’t giving them up now.

To her surprise, the clothes were a decent fit. A little big, but soft and tailored. She guessed they must have belonged to the stable boy or someone of similar rank, because they were well-made but designed to be durable. Either way, they were far better than what she had been wearing and were more comfortable. Krea tied on her old belt with her small knife, pulled her boots on over the stocking loops, and gave herself an appraising review in the dim light of the reflective glass. She had never looked so good. Her wheat-white hair, cut in rough layers to her shoulders, hung in silky chunks that seemed oddly tame thanks to her finger-combing effort. Her creamy skin glowed in the lamplight. The contrast of the dark-brown breeches and the light shirt made her vivid green eyes seem brighter than usual and helped hide her skinny body, but when she turned sideways for a final appraisal, she had to sigh. Her days of being able to pass for a boy were far behind her.

Krea smoothed out her shirt, patted her full belly, and smiled. “My thanks, Lord Sorin,” she told her image in the elitist accent of the rich. “I bid you safe journey on your quest to see the elders, and may all of your questions be answered.” With a giggle, she headed for the window. She was only one floor up, an easy drop. In the muted light of the predawn morning they would never see her slip out, and the cover of forest was just a short sprint away. Better yet, she noticed that the window shutters swung in absolute silence on their hinges when she closed them to block out the chilly night air. Now the only trick was to wake up on time.

When Krea finally fell into the stuffed bed, she wondered if she would ever get out of it. To the best of her memory, she had never slept on a bed that sat off the ground before, and it took all of three seconds to decide that there was no better way to sleep. The fluff from the mattress wrapped around her in a gentle hug, and the caress of the soft, warm blankets lulled her to sleep. Her last thought was a half-hearted decision to sleep on the floor instead of the seductive bed so she would be sure to wake up in the morning, but the thought was quickly lost in the luxurious embrace of the mattress.

 

###

 

As the sunlight inched up the Bothri Mountains, Sorin watched the shadow slip over the window’s edge and drop to the ground with ease. All he could do was shake his head as Krea fled into the still-dark woods. Oh, he could have tried to stop her, but what was the point? She was going to do what she was going to do, and the best way to handle someone like her was to wait it out. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a lot of time, and the reception of the villagers was going to be much more hostile than she imagined.

“Never trust a thief,” Kole muttered, glaring at the running silhouette.

Sorin turned to his steward. The man’s tone was as sour as ever, but his expression told a different story. “Tell me, Kole. Would you starve or steal?”

“I’ve done both, and there ain’t no honor in either one.”

Sorin had to laugh. “You sure are a grumpy old coot.”

“Speak for yourself, Sorin. All old men are grumpy, and you are fast becoming an old man even with the magic to protect you.” Kole stabbed his spade into the ground and finally turned to face his friend. “So you really mean to ride for Shaylith?”

Sorin nodded. “Today.”

“Are you going through Sra?”

“I wish I weren’t. She doesn’t have the time. But I sure can’t imagine taking her through the Nayli.”

“You got no sense if you go cutting through the Nayli.” Kole adjusted the handle so he could lean on it, and then gave Sorin a hard stare. “That ain’t no small undertaking, even for a man half your years. And with all the rush to make it to the royal wedding, you’ll be lucky to find supplies and stabling on the way. What is it that’s so important?”

Sorin pointed to the empty window that Krea had just dropped out of. “That was not just any thief. She’s a kyrni and she has no caller. She’s in trouble. The elders need to be consulted.”

“Consulted?” Kole spat. “What you need to be consulting them for? Bunch o’ has-beens too comfortable in their easy living to see the Empire is falling apart. That’s what they are. They got nothing to say to you.”

Sorin turned to his steward, but the man wasn’t finished. “What do you want to hear, Sorin? You want them to tell you they were wrong sending you into an ambush? You think going back there will ease the pain of losing your link? Losing your hand?” Kole shook his head. “Seeing that city again will only bring it back, my friend. Shaylith has nothing for you.”

“This isn’t for me.” Kole’s words brushed too close to a still-raw wound. Sorin let out a breath and continued. “Krea is nearing her first shift. The elders need to determine what should be done with her.”

“Oh, Nordu damn them all. You know what needs doing. She’s a kyrni without a caller. You are a caller without a kyrni. Teach her. Take her in. Do whatever it is you people do. You don’t need no elder for that.”

Sorin shook his head and looked out at the glowing horizon. The steward had no idea what he was asking. “No. It doesn’t work that way, Kole. I will never have another link. Krea needs a caller, and it can’t be me.” He surveyed the fields. The serfs were already out shuffling around in preparation for the early harvest. Birdsong filled the forest, and the amber touch of the morning sun glistened off the distant wheat crops. It was a beautiful place, his manor. Everything a man could think to want was right here, but it still wasn’t enough. Sorin instinctively knew that no matter what he acquired or gave away, it would never be enough. The gaping hole left by the loss of Tormismir would be with him forever. “Troulas is preparing the horses right now. I will leave as soon as they are ready.”

Kole just shook his head. “Well, you know I can’t abide no uppity noble who thinks going to court is a profession. If something happens to you and the Empress fiefs this land to one of that ilk, you’ll have my curse upon your head.”

“I know,” Sorin said, clasping his friend’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine, but I don’t know how long this journey will take. The sooner I get her there and dropped off, the better. It will be up to you to keep things going in my absence.”

“Don’t worry yourself. It won’t be no different than when you’re here.”

Sorin laughed and gave Kole’s shoulder a quick thump. “Fair enough. Just don’t start changing things around while I’m not here to stop you. I know the serfs aren’t happy about the extra help, but when those early rains come, and I know they will, everyone will be glad that we have seed on the ground instead of wheat stalks.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Kole replied, clasping Sorin’s forearm. “You go hunt your ghosts and be careful. I ain’t got a good feeling about this. There’s talk that the war in the north has crossed the Bothri River. I even heard it said that the torbadyn are aligned with the Walkilni now, and that they infiltrated the castle. Some of the whispering says this wedding is just a way to get all the ruling nobility in one place so’s they can be snuffed.”

“There’s always talk of alliances and conspiracies.”

Kole shook his head and braced his liege man with a somber stare. “No. This is different. I know you want no part of the rumors coming down from Shaylith, but you need to know. Something evil is moving out of the Dakel Forest. Folk says the evil has took Shaylith herself.”

“Just talk, Kole,” Sorin assured his steward, half-wishing someone would assure him of the same thing. “I’ll take care. I wouldn’t want to leave you playing steward to a noble with half your years and twice your ego.”

Kole merely grunted and folded his arms across his chest. “So, how do you intend to find your missing thief, anyway? Seems to me she can make herself scarce if she ain’t run afoul of that guard for as long as this.”

“Apparently she’s quite skilled, but I know where she’s going. When I was leaving the alleyway with her, she gave herself away.”

Kole nodded, patted Sorin’s shoulder, and headed off to organize the serfs. Sorin watched him for a moment and then turned to leave. He needed to get to the village before Krea, if he had any hope of convincing her to join him.