For Kullen had cleaved in Lejna two weeks ago. He had died in Lejna two weeks ago. He would never be coming back.
Without thinking, Merik’s fists shot out. He punched the gallows stage, pain bursting in his knuckles—at once grounding. At once real.
Again he punched. Harder this time, wondering why his insides spun. He had paid his dues to Kullen’s ghost. He had bought that shrine on the hillside, using the one remaining gold button from his admiral’s coat, and he’d prayed for the Hagfishes to give Kullen quick passage beyond the final shelf.
After that, it was supposed to stop hurting. This was supposed to stop hurting.
Eventually, the tall figure was gone and Merik’s bleeding knuckles stung more brightly than the past. Merik forced himself onward, elbows out and hood low. For if Safiya fon Hasstrel could reach that pier in Lejna despite Marstoks and Cleaved in her way—if she could do all that for a nation that wasn’t even her own, for a trade agreement with her family—then Merik could certainly finish what he’d come here to do.
Curse his mind for going to her, though. Merik had done so well at avoiding memories of Safi since the explosion. Since his old world had ended and this new one had begun. Not because he didn’t want to think about her. Noden save him, but that last moment he’d shared with her …
No, no—Merik would not dwell. There was no point in remembering the taste of Safi’s skin against his lips, not when his lips were now broken. Not when his entire body was ruined and wretched to behold.
Besides, dead men weren’t supposed to care.
On he charged through filth and body odor. A tide that fought back. A storm with no eye. Each smack of limbs against Merik’s shoulders or hands sent pain scuttling through him.
He reached the irons. Fifty prisoners waited here, shackled to the stones and crispy from the sun. A fence surrounded them, indifferent to the people pressing in from the outside.
They begged the guards to give their sons water. Their wives shade. Their fathers release. Yet the two soldiers who waited at the fence’s gate—inside, to keep from being trampled—showed no more interest in the hungry of Lovats than they did the prisoners they were meant to guard.
In fact, so bored were these two soldiers that they played taro to while away the time. One wore an iris-blue strip of cloth at his biceps, a mourning band to show respect for his dead prince. The other kept the band draped across a knee.
At the sight of that cloth—just lying there, unused—a fresh, furious wind ignited in Merik’s chest. He had given so much for Nubrevna, and this was all it had earned him: a hollow, false grief. Outward shows, like the wreaths and streamers draped across the city, that couldn’t truly mask how little anyone cared their prince was dead.
Vivia had seen to that.
Thank Noden, Merik soon arrived at the hut, for he could keep his winds and temper contained for only so long—and the fuse was almost burned up.
The crowds spat him out before orange walls streaked in bird shit, and Merik cut toward a door on the south side. Always locked, but not impenetrable.
“Open up!” Merik bellowed. He knocked once at the door—a mistake. The newly splintered skin on his knuckles sloughed off. “I know you’re in there!”
No response. At least none that Merik could hear, but that was all right. He let the heat in his body grow. Strengthen. Gust.
Then he knocked again, feeling the wind curl around him as he did so. “Hurry! It’s madness out here!”
The latch jiggled. The door creaked back … And Merik shoved in. With fists, with force, with wind.
The soldier on the other side stood no chance. He toppled back, the whole hut shuddering from the force of his fall. Before he could rise, Merik had the door closed behind him. He advanced on the man, his winds chasing. Tearing up papers in a cyclone that felt so blighted good.
It had been too long since Merik had let his winds unfurl and his magic stretch wide. Fire built in his belly, a rage that blustered and blew. That had kept his stomach full when food had not. Air billowed around him, sweeping in and out in time to his breaths.
The soldier—middle-aged, sallow-skinned—stayed on the ground with his hands to protect his face. Clearly, he’d decided surrender was his safest option.
Too bad. Merik would’ve loved a fight. Instead, he forced his eyes to scour the room. He used his winds too, coaxing them outward. Letting the vibrations on the air tell him where other bodies might wait. Where other breaths might curl. Yet no one hid in the dark corners, and the door into the main prison remained firmly shut.
So at last, with careful control, Merik returned his attention to the soldier. His magic softened, dropping papers to the floor before he eased off his hood, fighting the pain that skittered down his scalp.
Then Merik waited, to see if the soldier would recognize him.
Nothing. In fact, the instant the man lowered his hands, he shrank back. “What are you?”
“Angry.” Merik advanced a single step. “I seek someone recently released from a second time in the irons.”
The man shot a scattered glance around the room. “I’ll need more information. Sir. An age or crime or release date—”
“I don’t have that.” Merik claimed another step forward, and this time the soldier frantically scrambled upright. Away from Merik and grabbing for the nearest papers.
“I met this prisoner”—I killed this prisoner—“eleven days ago.” Merik paused, thinking back to the moonbeam. “He was brown-skinned with long black hair, and he had two stripes tattooed beneath his left eye.”
Two stripes. Two times in the Judgment Square irons.
“And…” Merik lifted his left hand. The skin bore shades of healing red and brown, except where new blood cracked along his knuckles. “The prisoner had no pinkie.”
“Garren Leeri!” the soldier cried, nodding. “I remember him, all right. He was part of the Nines, back before we cracked down on the Skulks’ gangs. Though the second time we arrested him, it was for petty theft.”
“Indeed. And what exactly happened to Garren after his time was served?”
“He was sold, sir.”
Merik’s nostrils flared. Sold was not something he’d known could happen to prisoners, and with that thought, disgusted heat awoke in his lungs. Merik didn’t fight it—he simply let it kick out to rattle the papers near his feet.