“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,” Cam counted behind him. Each step got a number, and each number was breathier than the last. The girl’s shoulders had started poking through her shirt these past few days, and Merik hadn’t missed how Cam divvied out the bulk of their rations to Merik. Although he always argued that they should each get half, he suspected she didn’t always obey.
Cam hit twenty-seven, and she and Merik shuffled onto the top floor’s landing.
Twelve more steps down the crowded hall brought them to a low pine door. After a cautious glance up the hall and down the hall, Merik set to tapping a lock-spell rhythm on the frame.
His heart thumped faster. The wood melted into a distant, fuzzy grain.
Then the spell clicked. An iron bolt within slid free, and Merik found himself immobile, staring at the latch. At the familiar dent in the wood below it.
He couldn’t do this. He’d thought he could face it, but now that he was here, it was a mistake.
“Sir,” Cam murmured, “are we going in?”
Merik’s blood was thudding like a hurricane in his ears. “This was … Kullen’s.”
“The first mate’s.” Cam dipped her head. “I guessed as much, sir.”
In a burst of speed, Merik pushed open the door and charged inside. His eyes met the familiar space, and he listed sharply forward, only to freeze, tilted. Hanging in midair like a corpse forgotten at the noose.
A single beam of light crawled into the room from a narrow window. Almost cheerfully. Certainly mocking, it whispered over wide-plank floors, red-washed walls, and exposed low beams.
Too low for Kullen to ever move comfortably about. He’d knocked his head on them every time he’d passed through, just as he had on the Jana. Just as he had in the cabin he’d grown up in on the Nihar estate far to the south.
“Come, sir.” Cam’s calloused hand settled on Merik’s arm. “People are watching. We oughta shut the door.”
When Merik didn’t move, Cam just heaved him forward two paces. A loud thump shook through the room, and power frizzed behind Merik as the lock-spell resumed.
“Ignite?” There was a question in Cam’s tone, as if she hoped the lamps looping over the low beams were Firewitched. They were, and at the voiced command, they brightened to life, revealing a dining area to the left.
Books were strewn across every surface. Each cover a different color or a different animal hide, and each spine with a different title stamped into it. Books in the cupboard, books on the table, books stacked on three mismatched chairs.
One chair for Kullen. One chair for Merik. And one chair, the newest of the three, for Kullen’s Heart-Thread.
Ryber. Merik’s chest tightened at that name—at the beautiful black face it conjured. She had vanished after Kullen’s death, leaving Merik with nothing but a note. While it was true that Merik had never grown close to her, never quite understood what she and Kullen shared, he would’ve welcomed having Ryber with him now. At least then one other person might understand what he was feeling.
Merik’s gaze tilted right, to where Cam waited warily several steps behind.
“I can leave you alone, sir. If you want. Maybe go find us a real meal.” She clutched at her stomach, which showed just how inverted her belly had become. “Don’t know about you, but that lamb didn’t fill me.”
“Hye,” Merik breathed. “There should be … martens…” His words faded off. He stumbled to the bed. Unmade and with more books tossed everywhere.
Tucked beneath the pillow was a coin purse from which Merik withdrew a single silver marten. But Cam’s head wagged; her cheeks turned starfish red. “I can’t use that, sir. People’ll think I stole it.” She waved at her dirty clothes, as if this explained everything.
Merik supposed it did. “Right.” He dug deeper into the purse until he found a wooden marten. Then two more. “Here.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll be back soon.” She banged a fist to her heart, then waited for a dismissal. A reaction. Something.
Merik had nothing to give. He was a well run dry. No fury. No magic. Just …
He turned away, and Cam took the hint. Moments later, magic hissed behind Merik as the door opened, closed. He was alone.
He aimed for the dining area. Toward the books atop the table and chairs. Ryber had turned Kullen into a reader, beginning with a book gifted to him early in their courtship. The Airwitch had gone from reading nothing in his life to never stopping, buying every novel or history book he could get his hands on.
And it was the only subject he and Ryber ever discussed. Constantly, they hunched over a shared book or debated the finer points of some philosopher Merik had never heard of.
Merik’s attention snagged on one spine now, a familiar title he’d seen Kullen reading on the Jana only hours before his death.
The True Tale of the Twelve Paladins.
Merik’s breath caught. He yanked it off the table in a rasp of leather, a puff of dust. He peeled back the cover …
Different copy. He exhaled—hard. This edition had a torn first page; the one on the Jana had been smooth. And this one had white dust on the pages, paragraphs underlined and sentences circled, where the copy on the Jana had been clean.
Of course it was a different copy. The one on the ship was now ash—and even if it had somehow been the same edition, it would have made no difference. A book could not replace a Threadbrother.
Merik let the pages fall open naturally, to where a gold-backed card winked up at him. He peeled it over. The King of Hounds. It was from the taro deck Ryber always carried—that much he could recognize—and beneath it was a circled paragraph: The paladins we locked away will one day walk among us. Vengeance will be theirs, in a fury unchecked, for their power was never ours to claim. Yet only in death, could they understand life. And only in life, will they change the world.
Well, Merik was neither truly alive nor truly dead, so where did that leave him? No ship. No crew. No crown.
But with a clue to follow. A link between the assassin named Garren and Vivia, and a first step toward proving the princess was behind the explosion, the attack. Surely with such evidence, the High Council would never allow Vivia to rule.
Merely thinking of Vivia sent a fresh wave of heat down Merik’s spine. It radiated into his arms and fingers. Burning, violent, delicious. All these years, Merik had tried to tame the Nihar rage. Tried to fight the temper that had made his family famous and uncrossable. After all, it was his temper that had propelled him into the Witchery Examination too young—that had convinced King Serafin Merik was more powerful than he truly was.