Hallowed

XXVII. Red Hands

Her hands were red. Her arms, all the way up to her elbows, were covered in blood and viscera. Before her, a mutilated corpse of a man blinked twice and sat up. Fresh stitches ran down his bare chest, a ragged red line that stretched from collar to groin.

She put a hand to his neck and found his pulse to be strong and steady. “Good,” she muttered. “And breathing and movement seem normal too.” She cleared her throat. “What’s your name?”

The man turned to stare blankly at her, not a trace of comprehension on his face.

“Your name. Do you know it?”

The man continued to stare.

She frowned. “Hit yourself,” she said, and without any hesitation, the man smacked himself across the face.

She screamed, a wordless sound of frustration and rage, as she flung everything off her desk. Scissors and syringes were sent skittering across the floor, and still the man on the table barely blinked.

A man with mismatched eyes came running into the room. “Doctor Grey?” he asked. “Is everything alright?”

“No,” she replied. She gestured toward the man on the table. “I was certain it would work this time.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the man with the mismatched eyes.

She slammed her fist on the table. “What am I doing wrong? The brain is intact, the heart, the lungs—Why are they always missing their minds?”

“Perhaps—Perhaps it just isn’t possible. Perhaps the soul is required to bring someone back fully.”

She shook her head and ran a hand down her face. “No. No it can’t be. Otherwise—Otherwise this is all for nothing.”

“But you saved me. You could save others.”

“But not Inoor,” she replied. “Nothing matters without Inoor.”

The smell of blood lingered as Deena woke, but the dream was already beginning to fade. What had it been about? She tried to cling to the few details she could recall—red hands, silver instruments—but it was no good. Her mind was like a sieve, and soon only the vague feeling of frustration remained. By the time she emerged from her tent, she barely remembered she’d dreamt at all.

Avenel was impatient to be back on the road, as she made amply clear when Izra came to check her wounds. “It doesn’t matter how well I’m healing,” she said. “We’ve wasted enough time here.”

“It matters if you die,” snapped Izra. “I didn’t spend four days dragging you back from the brink of death for you to throw it away.”

“The end of the world is more important than—”

“The world can wait another day. Now hold still; I can’t check your stitches while you’re squirming.”

In the end, the compromise was to leave after lunch and to take ample breaks as they rode. Even so, by the time they stopped to set up camp, several of Avenel’s cuts had reopened, and blood had soaked through to her tunic.

“You need more rest,” insisted Garthniiel, not for the first time that day. “Your bones—You didn’t see how mangled you were when Deena found you.”

Avenel waved him away, even as she nearly fell out of her saddle. “I’m fine,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”

“You really aren’t,” said Nicholas. “Look at you, you’re sweating. Your fever’s back, isn’t it?”

“I said I’m fine,” said Avenel.

“Because no one ever lies about how well they’re feeling,” said Izra. “That’s one thing you and Inoor have in common.” She sighed and looked to the sky, where the sun was beginning to dip below the treeline. “I don’t like it, but I have to agree with you. At this speed, we’ll have to press on.”

Progress was slow. They rode only a few hours each day, stopping often for Izra to check Avenel’s wounds. Nicholas chose to don his bird form to scout on ahead, circling back to join them in the evenings. The rest of them continued down the main road as it followed the river Rhiine. Gradually, the canyon became wider and shallower, though the water’s ferocity didn’t change.

It took a week to reach Selkie’s Shore. All that week, there was only one dream that Deena remembered. She was staring at a vast emptiness where something ought to be—where it had been just a moment before—while someone beside her shook her by the shoulders and begged for her to stop.

Selkie’s Shore had once been a nameless fishing village, perched on the shore where the Rhiine concluded its journey and met the ocean. Over time, as the river widened and deepened, its waters washed away the soft earth around the town, leaving it an island in the middle of the delta. The town itself grew alongside the river, from a fishing village to a small trade town to a bustling port city that—according to Garthniiel—handled the majority of Ajjraea’s trade. Limited by the size of the island, the city spilt out onto the surrounding water as it grew, buildings rising out of the river on stilts of wood and stone.

There were buildings on the mainland, too, satellite villages that only existed to service travelers to and from the city. It was there that they found a stable to lodge their horses and a ferry to take them to the city proper. The waves were choppy where the river’s freshwater rushed out to meet the salty sea, and it was all Deena could do to hang on to the railing as she leaned over the side of the boat to be sick. When they finally arrived, an eternity later, Flame had to carry her off the boat.

“Savior of the world, ladies and gentleman,” said Nicholas flippantly, perched as a bird on Izra’s shoulder. “We’re doomed.”

“Don’t say that,” said Izra. “You used to get seasick too.”

“I did?” asked Nicholas. “I don’t remember this.”

“It was a long time ago,” said Izra. “We were barely older than Deena.”

Nicholas rolled his shoulders in a way that vaguely resembled a shrug. “I’m going to fly on ahead to the docks, to find us some lodgings and hopefully a ship.”

“Ship?” asked Deena. Just thinking about it made her feel sick again.

“Don’t worry,” said Nicholas as he took off. “I’ll find a steady one.”

Compared to Emdenshire, Selkie’s Shore was even more small and cramped. The houses were tall and thin, often several stories high, with the upper stories looking like they had been haphazardly stacked atop the houses that were already there. What structures could not be squeezed onto the island proper were instead erected on the wooden boardwalk that ringed the island’s edge. It was a minor marvel that the whole city had yet to collapse in on itself. The streets were narrower than Emdenshire’s too, and correspondingly more crowded, with children weaving between the feet of street vendors, housewives, and more. Avenel took Deena’s hand as they squeezed through the crowd, her other hand resting on the hilt of her sword.

“It’s messier than I remember,” said Flame, carefully sidestepping a puddle of unidentifiable sludge.

“It was always like this,” said Frost. A man pulling a cart of fruit bumped into her and swore at her in an unknown tongue. “Welcome home.”

“I don’t remember much about the city,” admitted Garthniiel. “Too young, I suppose.”

“I don’t recognize anything either,” said Flame. “I’m not even sure where we are.”

“Shale district, just south of Bells Street,” said Frost. She pointed at a bookshop down the street. “That used to be a fabric shop. Aunt Ranna took us there once. You probably don’t remember.”

Flame squinted at the shop. “No, I do remember,” he said. “We came here for mother’s shroud.” He paused. “I think I’d like to look around a bit, see what else has changed.”

“Go ahead,” said Garthniiel. “We’ll see you this evening.”

“Sister?” asked Flame. “Will you come with me?”

Frost shrugged. “Sure.”

The rest of them continued toward the docks, and soon even Deena could tell they were close. Seagulls screeched incessantly overhead, louder even than the cacophony of people below, while the scent of salt and fish soon overpowered the other smells of the city. A small boy with a basket nearly collided with her as she rounded a corner, but before she could react, he had already moved on, yelling something about clams for sale.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she nearly jumped out of her skin before she turned and realized it was only Nicholas, dressed in nothing but an oversized tunic and a pair of sandals. “Sorry,” he said, holding up his hands. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s okay,” squeaked Deena.

“Where did you find clothes?” asked Izra. “I don’t remember burdening you with any money.”

“It got blown off a laundry line,” said Nicholas.

“There’s no wind.”

“Fine, I stole it off a laundry line,” said Nicholas. “Would you rather I walk around naked? I’m sure the ladies would love it, but—”

“I would rather you also stole some trousers,” said Izra.

“Did you find a ship?” asked Avenel.

Nicholas shook his head. “Apparently, the Bay of Lights is difficult to traverse this time of year. I’m sure we’ll find a captain adventurous enough, but it won’t be cheap.”

“Offer however much you need,” said Garthniiel. “I have a letter of credit from my father, and a city this size must have a bank.”

“Ah, the perks of travelling with royalty,” sighed Nicholas. “If you’d reminded me earlier, I would’ve gotten us better lodgings.”

The lodgings that Nicholas did find—an establishment called the Beached Whale—was pleasant enough, run by a matronly woman and her veritable gaggle of children. The ground floor was dry and cozy, with large windows that let in as much light as the neighboring buildings would allow. The scent of fresh bread wafted in from the kitchens, mixing with the salt smell of the sea in a way that was not unpleasant. The rooms upstairs, too, were brightly lit and comfortable, with beds that were—while not quite soft—still a vast improvement over a bedroll spread on the ground. There was a tub, too, behind a wooden screen, and even a small desk by the window.

Nicholas and Garthniiel soon left for the docks to find a captain willing to take them north. Avenel wanted to go with them, but in the end was convinced to lie down and rest a while. Izra came to check on her wounds and, after pondering for a moment, decided that they had healed enough that the stitches could be removed. “Go ask them to boil some water and bring it up,” she said to Deena. “And some clean linens, if they have it.”

The front counter was manned by a boy about Deena’s age, the innkeeper herself having gone back to the kitchens. He was bent over a small sheet of paper, lips moving quietly with the words. Absentmindedly, he shook his hair out of his eyes in a way that almost reminded Deena of Mattieu.

“Excuse me,” said Deena.

The boy looked up. “What can I do for you, miss?”

“I need some boiled water, please. And some linens, if you have them.”

“Of course,” said the boy. He looked to where one of his younger sisters sat loitering by a window. “Evette!” he called. “Hot water and fresh linens!”

Evette, after blowing a quick raspberry at her brother, got up and ran to the kitchen.

“She’ll bring it up to your room,” said the boy.

“Thank you,” said Deena. She glanced down at the paper in his hand. “What are you reading?”

The boy slid it across the counter to her. It was a small pamphlet, only a single page long, with large text at the top proclaiming “Beware the End of Days!”

“Where did you get this?” asked Deena.

“Some nutbar was passing them out by the square,” said the boy. “Took some to use as tinder, but figured I’d have Ess practice her reading first. Can you believe someone actually paid to have these printed? Who would even believe this rubbish?”

“You don’t?” asked Deena.

“Of course not,” said the boy. “If the world ended every time some lunatic said so, we’d be dead a hundred times over. That whole thing with the sun—It’s just some sort of eclipse; everyone says so.” He paused. “You don’t believe this stuff, do you?”

“Of course not,” said Deena hurriedly. “But, um, do you mind if I take this?”

“Help yourself,” said the boy. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I grabbed a whole stack.”

Deena took it. She skimmed it as she made her way back upstairs, but there was nothing in there about her, or the stars, or anything. She handed it to Avenel and sat down on the edge of the bed. “The boy downstairs,” she said, “he said someone was handing these out by the square.”

Izra glanced at it over Avenel’s shoulder. “I doubt it’s anything,” she said. “With the sun like this, people are bound to talk, and even a broken clock is right twice a day.”

“Just the same,” said Avenel, “I’d like to take a look and verify that for myself.”

“I’m sure you would,” said Izra, “but it’ll be after I remove your stitches.”

By the time Izra was finished, both Nicholas and Garthniiel had returned. Nicholas looked downright cheery as he entered the room. “Ladies, we’ve found ourselves a ship,” he announced. “And one willing to leave tomorrow, to boot.”

“He’s charging an arm and a leg for it, too,” complained Garthniiel.

“You did tell me to offer however much I needed,” said Nicholas.

“I thought you would at least negotiate.”

“How?” asked Nicholas. “I’ve been a bird for three hundred years; I’ve no idea how much things cost.”

“How much is your letter of credit worth?” asked Avenel. “If it isn’t enough—”

Garthniiel shook his head. “It’ll be enough. I asked the innkeeper; she said the bank’s not far from here.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Avenel. “I want to see who’s handing out these pamphlets.” She glanced at Deena. “Deena—”

“She’ll be fine,” said Izra. “He’s not likely to try anything in a city this size.”

“I’ll stay with her just the same,” said Nicholas. “If anyone gives us trouble, I’ll set them on fire.”

Avenel nodded. “I won’t be long,” she said to Deena. “I’ll see you at supper.”

They were soon gone, and Izra soon left too, muttering something about needing to find an apothecary. Nicholas sat with Deena for a time, gazing out at the limited view afforded by the window, then stood up. “Let’s visit the docks and market,” he said. “The others are enjoying the city; we should too.”

“Shouldn’t we stay here?” asked Deena.

“We’ll be safe in the city; Izi said so. And you’ve never been to the sea before, right? Don’t you want to see what it looks like?”

Deena hesitated. She supposed that Avenel hadn’t said to not leave the inn, and she really did want to see the ocean. “Alright,” she said, “but let’s not stay out too long.”

The docks were only a short walk away from the inn, and Deena gaped as they came into view. She had read about ships before, of course, but hadn’t ever quite grasped how large they were. Some were so big they rivaled castles for size, but even the smallest ones were as big as houses. It was a wonder that something so large could float so effortlessly upon the water, or perhaps it was only because of its size that it could avoid being smashed by the waves. To the west, a ship was just coming into port, her sails still unfurled, large white sheets that blotted out the sky. As it docked, the gangplank was lowered, and sailors hurried up and down to unload the cargo, yelling at each other in a tongue that Deena had never heard. There were passengers, too, looking somewhat haggard as they disembarked after months at sea, while a different ship was just leaving, its passengers crowding on the prow to wave at their loved ones on the pier.

And then there was the sea itself, vast and endless, stretching out as far as the eye could see and so blue it hurt to look at.

“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” asked Nicholas.

Deena nodded, but she could not stop staring. People bustled past her—some just normal-looking folks, but others wore strange outfits, exotic hairstyles, or with patterns inked on their arms and faces. There was a man with earlobes stretched to the size of disks, a woman with jewelry on her nose and eyebrows, and a man whose hat had a feather the length of Deena’s arm. “What size bird—” she began.

Nicholas laughed. “You haven’t seen much of the world, have you?”

Deena shook her head. “Only in books,” she said.

“Maybe you should see the real thing, when this is over. If you save the world, you should at least go see it.”

“O-oh,” said Deena. She had forgotten, for a moment, why they were there. It had been one thing to think about it in the woods, when all the world seemed distant. Here, amidst the throng of people and sights and sounds, it was the end of the world that seemed distant.

There was an argument on one of the docks, a pair of captains engaged in a fierce debate with each side using a different language. One of the captains gestured angrily with his hands, but then a second later it seemed a compromise was reached because both men laughed and clapped each other amiably on the arm.

“That one’s ours,” said Nicholas, pointing. “The one on the left with the bushy red beard.” The man seemed to notice Nicholas and gave a friendly wave before returning to his ship to bark orders at a mop-wielding deckhand. “He goes by Captain Baal.”

“What was that language he was speaking?” asked Deena.

“I have no idea,” said Nicholas. “Don’t worry; he speaks the language of Rhiinas too.” He looked about to say something more, but a street vendor caught his eye. “Is that fried cuttlefish?”

“A what fish?” asked Deena.

“Cuttlefish,” said Nicholas. “It used to be my favorite, when I was a boy.” He handed a coin to the vendor and took two of the so-called cuttlefish, each on a wooden skewer. “Here, try it.”

Deena took one. The creature on the stick looked nothing like any fish she had ever seen, nor did it taste like one, all gummy and chewy as it was. “Where are the bones?” she asked.

Nicholas laughed. “It doesn’t have any. Lots of animals in the sea don’t have bones.”

Deena tried to think of land animals that don’t have bones, but apart from earthworms and the like, could think of none. “Did you grow up by the ocean?” she asked.

Nicholas nodded. “In a city much like this one, in fact. Warmer, though, since Asterii’s in the south and all.”

“Do you miss it?”

“The city? No. I don’t have many good memories of it. But Asterii in general? Yes. It’s… not easy losing your home.”

Deena nodded. “Sometimes—Sometimes I forget that Taunsgrove is gone. Sometimes I like to pretend it’s still there, and that one day I’ll go back.”

“Me too,” admitted Nicholas. “I just wish I didn’t dream about the day it fell.”

“Fell?” asked Deena.

“When Asterii fell into the ocean.” For a moment, something hard and sharp flickered across his expression. Then the moment passed, and he was all smiles again. “Come on,” he said with a wink. “I stole some of Izra’s money. Let’s see the look on her face when we spend it all on sweets.”

Though only a stone’s throw from the docks, it was clear that the shops by the square catered to a more affluent clientel. There were more jewelers and haberdasheries here than fishmongers or greengrocers, and the shoppers were well-dressed men and women with servants trailing behind them. Even so, there was an old beggar woman sitting by the steps of the bank, wrapped in a ratty old cloak with the hood pulled low over her face.

“I don’t see anyone handing out leaflets,” said Garthniiel, surveying the square. “They must have left already.”

Avenel nodded. Her eyes had fallen on the raised wooden platform at the center of the square. High above the crowd, it was the perfect place for proselytizing. “Maybe someone saw something,” she said.

“Maybe—” began Garthniiel, but the rest of his sentence was lost as the bell tower above them tolled the hour. He made an impatient face as he waited for the sound to finish, then resumed: “I said, maybe we can look for whoever printed the leaflets.”

Avenel thought for a moment. “No, there isn’t time,” she said.

The bank wasn’t the most impressive of buildings, dwarfed as it was by the courthouse next door. The inside was as large and crowded as a marketplace, with merchants and ship’s captains making deposits, withdrawals, and exchanging their foreign currencies for the local one. One foreign merchant had taken to swearing at a bewildered clerk in the language of Osgola across the Sea, while the clerk, oblivious to the insults, continued to try to explain the mathematics of compound interest. “No, you see,” said the clerk, “we compound the interest at the end of every month, and it’s been eighteen months since your loan, so you actually owe us—Yes, I know it’s confusing, sir, but if you look at this abacus—”

Avenel decided to cut in. “He knows how much he owes,” she said to the clerk. “He’s just been calling your mother a whore for the past two minutes.”

“O-oh,” said the clerk, turning an indignant crimson. “Then sir, I must ask you to take that language outside.”

The Osgolan merchant scowled and dropped one last string of expletives before storming out the door.

The clerk sighed. “Who’s next?” he asked.

“I believe that would be us,” said Avenel. “Garth?”

“Right,” said Garthniiel, stepping forward. From his pocket, he produced the folded letter of credit. “I need to withdraw some money.”

The clerk unfolded the paper, and his eyes widend when he saw the name on the letter. “Prince Garthniiel?” he exclaimed. “You’re—?”

“In the flesh,” said Garthniiel. “That isn’t a problem, is it?”

“Not at all,” said the clerk, standing up so quickly that his chair was sent flying. “It’s just—To have kept you here waiting alongside the common merchants—” The clerk bowed and was about to get on his knees before Garthniiel caught him by the arm.

“Please don’t,” said Garthniiel awkwardly. “And we didn’t wait long. It’s alright, really.”

“It’s unconscionable,” insisted the clerk. “Mr Saerjjon—that is, the chief of this bank—will want to serve you personally, and—”

Garthniiel glanced at Avenel. “We’re actually rather in a hurry, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh,” said the clerk. “Then—then I’ll run down to the vault straight away. Please, um, please wait here, your highness.”

“Of course,” began Garthniiel, but the man was already gone. He frowned. “I was hoping he’d still offer us a place to sit,”

“Are you princely legs getting tired, your highness?” asked Avenel.

“Oh come on, I’ve scarcely had a moment to breathe since we entered this city,” complained Garthniiel. “I’m allowed to be tired, aren’t I?”

“Of course,” said Avenel, “but don’t forget we still have supplies to buy after this.”

Garthniiel groaned. “And I suppose I’m the one who’ll be carrying our purchases back to the inn?”

“I’m injured,” said Avenel with a smirk.

Garthniiel groaned again. He paused. “You know, we haven’t had a chance to talk about—about us.”

“Us?” asked Avenel.

“Well, that night. Did it—Did it mean anything, or was it just comfort?”

“I don’t know,” said Avenel honestly. “Would you like it to mean something?”

Garthniiel blushed. “Well I—I wouldn’t not like it to,” he admitted. “I know our statuses complicate things, but we could always just live in the woods. You could hunt, and I’ll take up gardening. Deena could come with us.”

“Have you ever gardened?” asked Avenel.

“I could learn,” said Garthniiel. “Plants grow by themselves all the time, don’t they? How hard could it be?”

“Harder than you would think,” said Avenel, smiling. “Besides, hiding in the woods wouldn’t change anything. We would still have our—our histories.”

Garthniiel frowned. “If this is about Jaliin, I’ve already said that I believe you.”

Avenel looked at him for a moment. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you believe me so readily?”

Garthniiel shrugged. “Because I’ve no reason not to.”

Home.

Flame supposed that that’s what Selkie’s Shore was, to him and Frost, but there was no feeling of homecoming. Here and there he caught a glimpse of something almost familiar—a memory he couldn’t quite recall—but for the most part, the streets were strange. He took Frost’s hand, and they wandered through the twisting streets and alleys until he was certain they were lost.

“There’s suppose to be a street here,” said Frost, facing a bookshop. “This shouldn’t be here.”

“Maybe we should ask for directions,” said Flame. He stepped into the shop. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you tell us how to get to the cemetery?”

The shopkeeper looked up from her bookkeeping. “Which one?” she asked. “There’s two around here.”

Flame wracked his brain, trying to remember the name. “Merrow’s End?”

“Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while,” said the shopkeeper. “It’s called the Northside, now. You’ll want to head west until you get to the broken statue, you can’t miss it, then go north from there until the street ends. The cemetery’s around there somewhere. The gate’s always overgrown these days, so it may be hard to spot, but it’s there.”

“Thank you,” said Flame.

“Not a problem,” replied the shopkeeper, already returning to her ledger.

They set off as the woman instructed, but halfway down the street, Frost stopped. “Wait,” she said, gazing down an alley. “I think home is that way.”

“Are you sure?” asked Flame. Nothing about the alley seemed familiar.

Frost nodded. “Don’t look at the houses; those are all different. Look at the view of the bell tower.”

Flame looked. In the sliver of sky between two buildings, the distant bell tower protruded into the blue. He wasn’t sure how the tower looked different from here than from any other point in the city, but—“Let’s go take a look,” he said.

He tried to remember how home looked. In his mind’s eye, he could picture the thatched roof, the weathered walls, the door that never sat quite right on its hinges. The walls in this alley were much the same, dirt-streaked stone with cracks in the mortar, but the buildings themselves were taller. These were looming multi-story constructions with clotheslines stretched across the the upper windows, not the simple row of dilapidated huts from his memory. It was as though the buildings themselves were children and had grown taller with the passage of time.

They stopped part-way down the alley. “Here,” said Frost. “The door was here.”

Flame looked around. The walls on either side were blank and nondescript, with no hint of a doorway that may have been there decades ago. He looked at his sister staring intently at the wall, as though she could somehow see through time to the past, to when their house was still standing, to when their parents were still alive. Perhaps she was thinking of a happier time, of when they were children, but—

“I’m glad they got rid of it,” said Frost, and she tore her gaze away. “Come on. The cemetery should be this way.”

As the bookseller had warned, the gate to the cemetery was hidden behind weeds and bramble. Vines had wrapped themselves around the latch such that Flame had to take out a knife to cut it free, and the rusted hinges creaked in protestation as he forced open the gate. The inside was not much better. Half the headstones were obscured by weeds, while many of the rest had been worn smooth by time. Flame bent down to examine one of the newer ones; the name was not one he knew, and the date was long after he and Frost had left the city.

He found their parents in the third row, headstones so close together that they may as well have been conjoined. “Sister,” he called. “I found them.” He pushed away the weeds that had accumulated on the stones. “I found Ma and Da.”

“Why did they bury him with her?” asked Frost.

“They were married,” said Flame.

“So? It’s not enough that she was stuck with him in life? He has to follow her in death, too?”

Flame had no response.

Frost knelt down on the ground, amidst the wild grass and dandelions, the thistle and the thorns. For a while she simply knelt there, with Flame standing watch beside her, then she slammed her fist into their father’s headstone.

“Sister!” exclaimed Flame.

“I’m fine,” said Frost, turning away. “Come on, we should head back to the others.”

Flame nodded, but he saw the red scrapes on her hand.

One final injury from their father, from beyond the grave.

The dinner table was laden with all kinds of things that Deena had never seen before: clam chowder and kelp salad and some sort of sauce made from roe. Deena tried a bit of everything, even the shrimp, even though they looked like bugs.

Nicholas seemed to be enjoying himself more than anyone. “I missed real food,” he sighed. “I’ve forgotten how nice it is to sit down at a table like this.” He grabbed a crab cake from the plate and stuffed it whole into his mouth. “I hope the food on the ship is as good as this.”

Izra looked at him in disgust. “Did you forget how to use a fork?” she asked.

“Is there anything else you miss?” asked Flame. “It’s our last night on land, after all.”

Nicholas thought for a moment. “I’d like a drink,” he said. “They serve drinks here, don’t they?”

“If you’re going to drink, do it properly,” said Frost. “There’s a tavern down the street.”

“I wouldn’t mind a drink either,” said Garthniiel. He turned to Avenel. “How about it? Shall we visit the tavern after dinner?”

Avenel shook her head. “I shouldn’t, not with my injuries still healing, but you go ahead. Just try to stay out of trouble.”

“I always try,” said Garthniiel. “Just, to varying levels of success.”

Avenel smiled and rolled her eyes.

“What about you, Izra?” asked Flame. “Will you join us?”

“Izi doesn’t drink,” interjected Nicholas before Izra could answer. “It’ll just be the four of us, I’m afraid.”

“Four is still plenty,” said Garthniiel. He clapped Nicholas on the shoulder. “Come on, we’d better get a move on if you want to make up for lost time.”

As it turned out, it didn’t take much at all to make up for lost time. Scarcely an hour later, they were back, an incoherent Nicholas in tow.

“Two drinks,” said Garthniiel, holding up two fingers. “Two drinks, and he was gone. I guess it figures that three hundred years as a bird would make him a lightweight.”

“Don’t blame it on that,” said Izra. “He’s always been a lightweight.”

“Are you going back out once you’ve put him to bed?” asked Avenel.

Garthniiel shook his head. “It kind of put a damper on the evening once he started crying about his dead wife. Anyway, Frost isn’t doing much better.”

“I heard my name,” called Frost from somewhere down the hall. “Is it—is it another round?”

“I think you’ve had enough,” said Flame. “What were you thinking, chugging six drinks in a row?”

“Six?” asked Frost. “I can drink waaaaay more than—” The rest of her sentence was muffled by the floorboards as she fell face-first onto the floor.

Flame sighed and picked her up. Her head lolled against his shoulder, and a soft snore emanated from her throat.

“Unbelievable,” sighed Izra, shaking her head. “I’m going back to my room. Let me know if either of them stops breathing.”

Avenel and Garthniiel each took one of Nicholas’s arms to help him up the stairs. “He was the one who taught me to drink, you know,” said Avenel, “and even then I always outlasted him. I suppose there’s something to be said for efficiency versus endurance.”

“Would you like to test my efficiency versus endurance?” asked Garthniiel, wagging an eyebrow.

Avenel laughed. “Some other time, perhaps,” she said.

The boy knelt on the dirt floor, scrubbing dishes by a wooden tub. The pots and plates were dented and chipped, and he winced as he cut his finger on a sharp edge.

Behind him, a door slammed open with a bang.

The boy turned to looked up at the disheveled man that entered. “You’re home!” he exclaimed, hurrying to his feet. “I—”

He was sent sprawling to the ground again when the man smacked him with the back of his hand. “What did I say about washing the dishes, boy?” asked the man. “Do you want the neighbors to laugh at me? That my son does a woman’s work?”

The boy put a hand to his cheek. He tasted blood. “No, Da,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

The man regarded him for a moment, then threw himself into a chair. “Where’s your sister?”

“She’s at work,” said the boy.

The man gave a grunt. “Work. Whoring is what she’s doing.”

“She does it to put food on the table, Da.”

The man rose from his chair. The boy took a step back, but the man reached out and grabbed him by the neck. “Are you saying I’m a bad father, boy?” asked the man. His breath reeked of drink. “A bad provider? That it’s my fault that Ellia’s a whore?”

“N-no,” said the boy.

“Are you laughing at me too?”

“No, never.” Tears burned at his eyes, and he struggled to keep them back. “Please, Da, I’m sor—”

The man flung him bodily across the room. The boy’s head slammed into something hard, and through the fog of pain, he was vaguely aware of the man approaching him, towering over him. He raised his arms over his face, and as he did so, the man kicked him in the gut, over and over until vomit mixed with blood on the floor.

“Get up and fight me, boy!” roared the man. “Are you a man or not? Fight back!”

The boy didn’t answer—couldn’t. There was blood in his mouth, in his nose, and it was all he could do to keep from choking. He tried to crawl, to get away, but the man dragged him back by his ankle and—

There was a dull, wet thud, and the barrage of blows stopped. There was a moment of silence, then the man fell to the floor, his eyes wide open and empty.

The boy looked up. There, with the light from the open door illuminating her like a halo, stood his sister, a bloodstained brick in her hand.

“Grab your things, Ennir,” said his sister. “We’re leaving.”

It was still dark when Frost woke. From the moonlight that shone in through the open window, she could see her brother fast asleep in the other bed. He was curled on his side with the blankets wrapped tight around him, his hair tangled before his face.

As quietly as she could manage, Frost crept out of bed. Her head was still buzzing, the drink not quite having left her body, and she stumbled a few steps before finding her balance. There was a pitcher of water by her bed, and she drank from it directly, ignoring the cups that sat beside it.

The door creaked as she opened and closed it again, as did the stairs as she descended, but otherwise, all was silent. One of the innkeeper’s daughters was asleep at the counter, face buried in her arms, oblivious as Frost slipped out of the door and into the night.

She didn’t intend to go anywhere. She had just wanted to get some air. But once she was outside, under the moon and the stars, she found herself walking toward the docks. The boardwalk was nearly empty this time of night, even the streetwalkers having gone home to bed, but that was fine by Frost. She wished she’d brought something to ward against the chill that blew in from the sea, but instead she shivered and wrapped her arms about her waist.

At some point she left the boardwalk, and without quite realizing it, her feet took her back toward old haunts. The apothecary where she’d bought her pennyroyal, the tavern where she’d worked the beds. Both establishments were gone now, replaced by a haberdashery and a butcher shop. In the alley by the market, a pair of cats yowled as they fought for scraps, only to both scatter as Frost approached. She turned left, then right, then left again, until she was no longer sure of the way back to the inn, but that was alright. She just wanted to keep walking.

“Hey,” called a voice a behind her. Gruff, male, and unfamiliar. She ignored it. “Hey, I’m talking to you!”

Now she was aware of what she had previously missed: three pairs of footsteps, following her. She stopped and turned. “What do you want?” she asked.

The men leered at her. They were the usual kind of city scum, the kind that crawled out of the woodwork at night looking for easy pickings. Their leader, the man who had spoken, let his gaze linger on her hips. “You looking for a good time, poppet?”

“No,” said Frost.

“I think you are, isn’t that right, boys? Pretty thing wandering the streets at this hour?” He laughed. “Come on, poppet. I know your type.”

Frost scowled. Without thinking, she formed her hand into a fist and swung.