One such paper flipped up, slapping against the soldier’s shin. In an instant, the man was trembling again. “It doesn’t happen often. Sir. Selling people, I mean. Just when we’ve no room in the prison—and we only sell people convicted for petty crimes. They work off their time instead.”
“And to whom”—Merik dipped his head sideways—“did you sell this man named Garren?”
“To Pin’s Keep, sir. They regularly buy prisoners to work the clinic. Give them second chances.”
“Ah.” Merik could barely bite back a smile. Pin’s Keep was a shelter for the poorest of Lovats. It had been a project of Merik’s mother, and upon the queen’s death, it had passed directly to Vivia.
How easy. Just like that, Merik had the found the sinew binding Garren to Vivia. All he lacked was tangible proof—something physical that he could hand to the High Council showing, beyond any doubt, that his sister was a murderer. That she was not fit to rule.
Now he had a lead. A good one.
Before Merik could loose a smile, the sound of metal scraping on wood filled the room.
Merik turned as the outside door swung in and met the eyes of a startled young guard.
Well, this was unfortunate.
For the guard.
Out snapped Merik’s winds, grabbing the guard like a doll. Then in they whipped, and he was flung straight for Merik.
Whose fist was ready.
Merik’s torn knuckles connected with the guard’s jaw. Full speed. A hurricane against a mountain. The guard was out in an instant, and as his limp form crumpled, Merik threw a glance at the first soldier.
But the older man was at the door to the prison now, fumbling with a lock to escape and muttering, “Too old for this. Too old for this.”
Hell-waters. A flash of guilt hit Merik’s chest. He had what he’d come for, and hanging around was simply asking for more trouble. So he left the soldier to his escape and slung toward the hut’s open door.
Only to stop halfway as a screeching woman tumbled inside. “There’s no crime in being hungry! Free us and feed us!”
It was that woman, and her two sons straggled in behind. Noden hang him, but hadn’t Merik had enough interruptions for one day?
The answer was no, apparently he had not.
Upon spotting the unconscious guard and then Merik’s unhooded face, the woman fell completely silent. Totally still. There was something in her bloodshot eyes, something hopeful.
“You,” she breathed. Then she stumbled forward, arms outstretched. “Please, Fury, we’ve done nothing wrong.”
Merik yanked up his hood, the pain briefly louder than any sounds. Brighter too, even as the woman and her sons closed in.
Her hands grabbed Merik’s hand. “Please, Fury!” she repeated, and inwardly Merik winced at that title. Was he truly so grotesque? “Please, sir! We’ve been good and given our respects to your shrine! We don’t deserve your wrath—we just want to feed our families!”
Merik tore himself free. Skin split beneath her fingernails. Any moment now, soldiers would be pouring in from the records office, and though Merik could fight these boys and their mother, that would only draw attention.
“Free us and feed us, you said?” Merik scooped a ring of keys from the unconscious guard’s belt. “Take these.”
The cursed woman cowered back from Merik’s outstretched hand.
And now he was out of time. The familiar sound of a wind-drum was booming outside. Soldiers needed, said the beat, in Judgment Square.
So Merik flung the keys at the nearest son, who caught them clumsily. “Free the prisoners if you want, but be quick about it. Because now would be a good time for all of us to run.”
Then Merik thrust into the crowds, bobbing low and moving fast. For though the woman and her sons lacked the good sense to flee, Merik Nihar did not.
After all, even dead men could have lives they didn’t want to lose.
This was not Azmir.
Safiya fon Hasstrel might have been a poor geography student, but even she knew this crescent-moon bay was not the capital of Marstok. Though weasels piss on her, she wished it were.
Anything would be more interesting than staring at the same turquoise waves she’d been staring at for the past week, so at odds with the dark, dense jungle beyond. For here, on the easternmost edge of the Contested Lands—a long peninsula of no-man’s-land that didn’t quite belong to the pirate factions in Saldonica and didn’t quite belong to the empires either—there was absolutely nothing of interest to do.
Paper whispered behind Safi, almost in time to the sea’s swell, and overtop it sang the infinitely calm voice of the Empress of Marstok. All day long, she worked through missives and messages on a low table at the center of her cabin, stopping only to update Safi on some complicated political alliance or recent shift in her empire’s southern borders.
It was excruciatingly dull, and the simple truth was, at least in Safi’s opinion, that pretty people should not be allowed to lecture. Nothing negated beauty faster than boredom.
“Are you listening, Domna?”
“Of course I am, Your Majesty!” Safi twirled around, her white gown billowing. She batted her eyelashes for an extra dose of innocence.
Vaness wasn’t buying it. Her heart-shaped face had hardened, and Safi didn’t think she was imagining how the empress’s iron belt rippled and grooved like two snakes sliding past each other.
Vaness was, according to scholars, the youngest, most powerful empress in all of the Witchlands history. She was also, according to legend, the strongest, most vicious Ironwitch who had ever lived, having felled an entire mountain when she was only seven years old. And, of course, according to Safi, Vaness was the most beautiful, most elegant woman who had ever graced the world with her presence.
Yet none of that mattered because gods below, Vaness was tedious.
No card games, no jokes, no exciting stories by Firewitch flame—nothing at all to make this wait more bearable. They’d dropped anchor here a week before, hiding first from a Cartorran cutter. Then from a Cartorran armada. Everyone had been braced for a naval battle …
That had never come. And while Safi knew this to be a good thing—war was senseless, as Habim always said—she’d also learned that waiting all day long was her own form of private hell.
Especially since her entire life had been upended two and a half weeks ago. A surprise betrothal to the Emperor of Cartorra had pulled her into a cyclone of conspiracy and escape. She’d learned her uncle, a man she’d spent her whole life loathing, was behind some massive, wide-scale plan to bring peace to the Witchlands.