Hallowed

IX. Regret

Chester Carr yawned. His shift was only halfway done, but he was already dreaming of crawling back into his warm bed in the barracks. He hadn’t slept well at all, having been intermittently woken by the carousing of his fellow guards outside, before dragging himself out of bed for the second night shift.

He glanced towards the open window to his left. It was still dark outside, but perhaps not as dark as the last time he’d checked.

Three more hours, he thought. Three more hours, and I’ll get to go back to bed.

He yawned again. Just as well that he got the night shift, really. It had been stupidly warm out, considering the season. Gods only knew how hot it would be once the sun was up. Both the door and window were open to let in a breeze, but there was none to be found.

His family had tried to dissuade him from taking this job, and some days he almost agreed with them. “But you’ll be with criminals all day,” his sister had said. “What if they get violent?” As it turned out, she hardly need have worried. He was more in danger of being bored to death than attacked by any of the petty thieves, drunkards, and gamblers in his cells. Still, the pay was good, and it was better than the alternative of working at his brother’s market stall. If he had to say “Welcome to Carr’s Carpet Cart” one more time, he would have killed himself.

Chester drummed his fingers on the old wooden desk. Perhaps he should walk around and glower at the inmates some more. Yes, there was the new inmate who’d been brought in the day before. Big fellow, but seemed meek enough. Hardly a word of complaint when he was tossed into the cell, only a stupid grin on his face. A drunkard, most like, but by now he would be awake and sober.

He stood up.

“Excuse me,” said a voice. “Are you the guard on duty?”

Chester turned. A man was standing in the doorway, sporting a long ponytail the color of Aunt Jacinda’s carrots. A bow was slung across his back, and a quiver of arrows hung from his belt.

“You can’t bring weapons in here,” said Chester. “And anyway, visiting hours aren’t until noon.”

“Oh, I’m not here to visit someone,” said the man with a smile. “I’m here to break him out.”

Chester had never been the quickest guard at the jailhouse. Before he could react, a woman, her head shaved bald, leaned in through the open window to put a dagger at his throat.

“Please sit back down,” said the redheaded man. “And stay quiet. We would really rather no one got hurt.”

Chester obeyed.

The man tied him to the chair and stuffed a rag in his mouth. “It isn’t too tight, is it?” he asked “I’ve never had to do this before.”

“Would it kill you to talk less?” asked the woman, climbing in through the window.

“I’m only being polite, Sister,” said the man. “He’ll probably lose his job for this; no need to make his day worse.”

The woman scowled. “Let’s just get this over with.” She flipped through the ledger on Chester’s desk. “Yep, here he is. Arrested for fisticuffs, public drunkenness, and damage to public property. Come on.”

The redheaded man nodded, taking the keyring from its hook. He turned to Chester. “I hope you don’t actually lose you job for this,” he said, then ran down the hall after his sister.

Most of the prisoners were sleeping, but a few stirred at the sound of footsteps.

“Yer not a guard,” slurred one of them, sounding more asleep than awake.

“Observant,” said the red-haired man.

The bald woman glanced down at the prisoner. “Don’t talk to them, Flame.”

“I’m sure they’re harmless, Sister,” said the man, but nonetheless ran a few steps to catch up with her.

“Flame?” called a voice from down the corridor. “Frost? Is that you?”

“That depends,” replied Flame. “Will we have to break you out of jail again any time soon?”

“Yes, yes, I’ve learned my lesson,” said the voice. A face appeared at the bars: dark, handsome, and with a comically exaggerated frown. “I promise, I’m the epitome of contrition.”

Flame unlocked the cell door. “Out you go, your contriteness,” he said. “Try to be more careful next time.”

Chester glowered at them all as they passed by again on their way out. The dark-skinned man—the one who had been a prisoner until thirty seconds ago—gave a mocking bow. “Thank you for your hospitality, good sir,” he said, “but I’m afraid I must depart.”

“Garth, let’s go,” hissed Frost.

“Of course,” said the man called Garth, and with a wink back at Chester, exited with his companions.

Outside, the city was asleep, the streets empty, and a round moon hung bright in the sky. Garthniiel stretched, enjoying his newly regained freedom.

“You’re lucky they didn’t figure out who you are,” said Frost.

“How could they have known?” asked Garth. “I’ve been careful.”

“You were arrested.”

“I escaped, didn’t I? With help, of course.” He paused. “But you’re right. Perhaps we’ve overstayed our welcome here in Elyria. I think it’s time we returned home to Ajjraea.”

“Finally,” sighed Frost.

“… just as soon as I figure out how.”

The two horses clip clopped along the road. Deena stared resolutely ahead as she rode. Not that there was much to look at; just trees, trees, and more trees.

“If you have something to say to me,” said Avenel, “then say it.”

“Why would I have anything to say to you?” asked Deena.

“Because you’re still here,” said Avenel. “You haven’t tried to run off.”

“I don’t have anywhere to go, remember? Everyone I know is gone, and from a fire that I didn’t set.”

Avenel looked at her. “You’re upset.”

“I’m—Of course I’m upset!” exclaimed Deena. “You’re a murder! A-a murderer and an arsonist!”

“You already knew that I’ve killed in the past.”

“Yes, when it was your job. Not when—when—whatever it was I saw.”

“So you saw me?” asked Avenel. “In this dream?”

“It wasn’t a dream!” said Deena. It had felt too real to be a dream. “And I didn’t see you, exactly. I saw… through you? Like it was your memory.”

“How do you know it was me?”

“Because I saw your reflection,” said Deena. “And because you didn’t deny it. You’d deny it if it wasn’t you, wouldn’t you?”

Avenel didn’t answer.

“You don’t have to believe me,” said Deena. “I know how it sounds.”

“And yet, there you are, in possession of knowledge that no one else has.”

Deena looked at her. “Are you saying no one knows this? What about Lord Vallus? Or your wardsister?”

“Officially, the fire was an accident. Only Ephraim knew the truth.”

“O-oh,” said Deena. It made sense, but somehow it still surprised her.

By noon, the forest had given way to plains, vast stretches of wild grass as tall as the horses’ knees. Here and there, a lone cottage or tree broke up the monotony in the distance.

They stopped by a pond, and the horses drank greedily, having been sweating beneath the sun all day. Avenel took out the cheese and cut a piece for Deena.

“No thank you,” said Deena coolly.

Avenel sighed and set down the cheese. “Would you like to talk about it?”

“No,” said Deena.

“Fine,” said Avenel, getting to her feet. “I’m going to fill our flasks.”

Deena eyed the cheese where it sat in its wax paper wrapper. She tried to ignore it, but a short while later, when her stomach began to growl, picked it up and devoured it in three quick bites.

It was mid-afternoon when they passed through a farming settlement, just a cluster of houses that called itself a village. One of the houses was an inn, so Avenel suggested that they stay there for the night. Deena had no objections; anything was better than the ground.

“It will be better to use a false name,” said Avenel. “It’s safer, on the road.”

“What are you afraid of?” asked Deena. “Other murderers?”

“Mostly bandits and thieves, actually,” said Avenel.

“Couldn’t you—” began Deena.

“Kill them?” asked Avenel. “Yes, I could.”

The inn was empty but for a young man in the corner who looked them up and down as they entered. The innkeeper was quick to arrive, however, and showed them to a pair of rooms upstairs.

“Would you like to draw a bath?” asked the innkeep.

“Please,” said Avenel, “for the both of us.”

The innkeeper nodded. “Dinner will be downstairs in an hour, if you want it.”

Avenel wasn’t in her room when Deena finished her bath, so she went downstairs, but Avenel wasn’t there either. Once again, the room was empty but for the young man in the corner. Deena took a seat as far from him as possible.

Much to her unease, he got up and walked to her.

“Um, can I help you?” asked Deena.

“No,” said the man. “My father’s the magister, you know.”

“Oh. That’s nice,” said Deena, wondering why a village this size even needed a magister. She wanted to get up and leave, but the way he was standing blocked her path. “I—I should go find my friend—”

The man didn’t move. “She’s in the stables,” he said. “I saw her leave.” He took another step forward. “I like your hair.”

“Um,” said Deena.

He reached for her arm, but a dagger whizzed past his head, knicking his ear before embedding itself in the far wall.

“Step away from my ward,” said Avenel from the door, “or the next one goes through your eye.”

The man touched the cut on his ear. “My father—”

“—would undoubtedly prefer his son in tact rather than in pieces,” finished Avenel. “Leave.”

The man scowled and took off.

“Let me know if he bothers you again,” said Avenel, retrieving her dagger. “I should find the innkeeper and pay for this hole in his wall.”

“A—aren’t you having dinner?” asked Deena.

“I’ll eat in my room,” said Avenel.

It was early enough that there was still some sunlight after dinner. Deena returned to her room and tried to read, for a bit, but found that she couldn’t focus. The room felt strangely empty. She thought of the dream she had had, the fire at Parvelhaugh, and then the fire at Taunsgrove. Somehow, the fire in her dream—in Avenel’s memory—felt more real.

She went out into the hall and knocked on Avenel’s door.

“Yes?” asked Avenel, as she opened the door.

“Why did you get us separate rooms?” asked Deena. “Why not share one, like we did at the Silent Tower?”

“I thought I would give you some space.”

“Oh,” said Deena. She felt she should say something else, but wasn’t sure what to say. After a moment, Avenel stepped aside to let Deena in.

Avenel’s sword was leaning against the bed, its ruby pommel bright as blood. “He was wearing that sword on his hip,” said Deena. “The blond man—Nicholas. I saw it.”

“You saw him?” asked Avenel.

Deena nodded. “He was—he shouldn’t have done that. Hurt you like that.”

“Yes,” said Avenel.

“But he didn’t deserve to die, not like that. She didn’t either. None of them did.”

“No,” agreed Avenel.

“I thought you were like me,” said Deena, “that your family died like mine, but—” She bit her lip. “—But it really isn’t the same, is it?”

“I suppose not,” said Avenel.

“Did you mean to kill them? When you set that fire?”

“Does it matter?” asked Avenel. “Either way, they died.”

“Do you regret it, then?” asked Deena.

“Of course,” said Avenel, “but regret won’t change the past. What’s done is done.”

Deena nodded. “I’m sorry I was rude today.”

“It’s understandable.”

Deena shook her head. “No. You’ve been nothing but nice to me, ever since—since what happened at Taunsgrove. It—It shouldn’t matter to me what you did in the past. People change, and right now you’re—you’re all I’ve got.”

Avenel looked at her for a moment. “If you’d like to stay, I could ask the innkeeper to add a cot.”

Deena nodded. “Yes, please. I—I don’t want to be alone.”

That night, Deena’s sleep was blessedly devoid of strange dreams.

It was only half a day more to Emdenshire, so they took their time in the morning. Breakfast was flatbread, eggs, and juicy strips of bacon. The magister’s son didn’t appear again.

The sun was already high in the sky when they retrieved their horses and set off. The houses dotting the farmland increased in frequency as they rode. They encountered other travelers, too, people heading to and from the city: lone riders and mule carts and travelers walking on foot.

“Mr Allard was going to Emdenshire, wasn’t he?” asked Deena. “To fix his cart.”

Avenel nodded. “It was the nearest city, but he’ll have moved on to Glennark or Eswick, by now.”

“I think he’s in Rook’s Town a lot,” said Deena. “He mentions it a lot, anyway.”

“He lives there,” said Avenel. “It’s where his wife and children are.”

For some reason, Deena had never considered what Allard’s life was like when he wasn’t on the road. It made sense, of course, that he would have a family, but she had never given it any thought. “Do you have a home?” asked Deena. “Somewhere you go when you aren’t travelling?”

Avenel shook her head. “Just the Tower,” she said.

It was afternoon when they reached the city proper. Deena had always imagined cities to be just like Taunsgrove, only larger. She was wrong. Emdenshire was bigger than Taunsgrove, yes, but it was also much louder, filthier, and more crowded. Pedestrians jostled each other in the streets, and at every corner was some vendor hawking their wares. Beggars held out chipped bowls to ask for spare coppers, only to be ignored or pushed aside. Barefoot urchins ran, laughing and shouting, bumping into aproned matrons who swore after them. Shops lined the streets on either side, offering all manner of goods, and above them towered multiple stories of living quarters. Laundry hung from lines strung between the upper story windows, waving like mismatched pennants in the wind. It was a wonder they weren’t dirty again by the time they dried when the air was so thick with the smell of dead rats, rotten vegetables, and human waste.

“How can anyone live like this?” asked Deena, wrinkling her nose.

“One gets used to it,” said Avenel.

“I don’t think I could ever get used to this,” said Deena.

“You would be surprised what a person can get used to.”

The crowd was forced to step aside to allow their horses through, which they did begrudgingly and with many loud and rude protestations. Deena shrank a little from all the dirty looks, but Avenel seemed unfazed, as did the horses.

The area where they stopped was a little nicer, with cobbled streets instead of dirt and larger, more inviting shopfronts. The smell, however, remained the same, as did the crowds. The inn Avenel chose was tucked away down a side street, with a stable out front that looked as though it had been squashed into the neighboring building. A sign outside read “The Manticore.” It was with some reluctance that the stableboy tore himself away from a game of ball with his friends, at least until Avenel tossed a few coins his way.

The inside of the inn was larger than the narrow front would suggest, with the room being longer than it was wide. A dozen patrons sat eating or drinking, most of them alone or in pairs. There was a bearded man behind the bar, polishing the counter, and he looked up as they entered.

“What can I get you?” he asked.

“A double room, please,” said Avenel. “Just for tonight.”

The man retrieved a thick ledger from beneath the counter. “Your names?” he asked.

“Azalea,” said Avenel. “Azalea Mills.”

The man nodded as he wrote. “And you?” he asked Deena.

“Um, Hyacinth,” said Deena, then immediately mentally smacked herself.

The man didn’t react as he wrote it down. “Second floor, third room on the left,” he said as he handed them the key.

“I can’t believe I said ‘Hyacinth’,” said Deena as they went up the stairs. “Who would name their child ‘Hyacinth’?”

“It could be worse,” said Avenel. “You could have said ‘Butterwort’.”

Deena made a face.

The room was neither large nor elaborate, but it was clean, with two beds, two chairs, and a wooden screen. In between was a large window that overlooked a back alley. Deena threw it open to let in the afternoon breeze, then realized too late that she had also let in the stench. She slammed it shut again.

Avenel took off her boots to sit cross-legged on the bed. “We have a few hours until suppertime,” she said. “Is there anything you would like to do?”

“I don’t know what there is to do,” said Deena.

“It’s been a while since I was last here,” said Avenel. “We could go to the market; I need to pick up some supplies. There are also some shops that sell things you might like, and sometimes there are performers by the square. Jugglers, puppets, that sort of thing.”

Deena thought for a moment. “Performers might be fun,” she said. Travelling performers came to Taunsgrove sometimes, but not very often. “Is it far?”

“Not very,” said Avenel, “and we can visit some shops on the way.”

Emdenshire was not a large city, according to Avenel, but it still boasted a variety of shops and craftspeople. Every object in existence seemed to have its own specialty shop. There were glassblowers and milliners and jewelers and bookbinders, alongside the more commonplace businesses like butchers and carpenters. There was even a shop dedicated entirely to different pens and inks, where Avenel spent what felt like an eternity picking out a gift for her wardsister.

“There’s a shop just for sweets?” asked Deena, staring in awe through the shop window. “Who eats this many sweets?”

“No one, I hope,” said Avenel. “Would you like some?”

“I wouldn’t know what to get,” said Deena. The delicious aroma of sugar and fruit wafted tantalizingly through the open door, and inside, the shop was filled with shelves and shelves of sweets. There were licorice and caramelized nuts like Mrs Sandler used to make, but most were things that Deena had never seen before.

“First time in the city?” asked the confectioner when they entered. “If you don’t know what you like, you could try a piece.”

Deena’s eyes widened. “I—I don’t even know what to try.”

The confectioner chuckled. “Why not a piece of everything, then? Here, start with this.”

In the end, they bought candied lemons, dried dates, and two different kinds of toffee, all wrapped in neat paper packages. There were also strawberries on a stick dipped in some sort of sugary syrup, which they ate as they watched a troupe of performers in the square. There was a sword swallower, a contortionist, and a blindfolded knife thrower who cleanly sliced through the crabapple placed atop his assistant’s head.

“How did he do that?” asked Deena, jaw dropped. “He couldn’t even see where she was!”

“He can,” said Avenel. “That blindfold isn’t nearly thick enough.”

The leader of the troupe stepped before the crowd. “Duncan the Unerring, ladies and gentlemen!” he called, as a stagehand set up a wooden target behind him. “Does anyone wish to challenge him?”

A hand shot up from the crowd, holding a silver coin. “I do!”

“Then step right up,” said the troupe leader, taking the coin from the young man’s hand.

Duncan went first. With an almost careless flick of his wrist, he sent his dagger flying straight into the center of the target. The young man’s dagger missed the target altogether, landing in the haystack behind it.

“Bad luck, I’m afraid,” said the troupe leader, pocketing the young man’s coin. “Looks like you lost this wager.”

The crowd laughed. The young man, looking dejected, slinked into the back.

“It’s rigged,” said Avenel quietly to Deena. “The knife they gave him isn’t balanced; it’s designed to curve in the air.”

“But that isn’t fair,” said Deena. “They tricked him!”

“I know,” said Avenel. She took a gold coin from her purse and held it up. “A gold piece,” she called, “but I get three tries.”

The troupe leader hesitated, but the allure of the gold was too much. “Step right up,” he said, taking the gold from her hand and biting it to ensure it was real.

Avenel took the dagger from the assistant’s hand. She tossed it between her hands, as though feeling for the weight and balance, then stepped forward to the line on the ground. “After you, Mr Duncan,” she said.

Duncan nodded. Once again, his knife hit the center of the target.

“Your turn, ma’am,” called the troupe leader. He was playing with the gold coin, flipping it between his fingers. “As promised, you get three tries.”

Avenel threw the dagger. As with the young man from before, it went wide. The crowd laughed, but Avenel only smiled. “Good thing I have two more tries,” she said.

The assistant brough the dagger back to her, and as soon as she was clear, Avenel threw it. This time, it hit the target in the dead center, so close to Duncan’s that the two formed a single hole.

“W-well,” said the troupe leader as the crowd all cheered. “Looks like you won.”

“I still have another try, don’t I?” asked Avenel.

“Yes?” said troupe leader uncertainly.

“Good,” said Avenel and held out her hand for the knife.

The troupe leader watched her uncertainly, still flipping that gold coin between his fingers. Once more, Avenel threw the knife, but this time it hit the coin in the troupe leader’s hand, sending it flying.

The troupe leader scrambled to run after it. The crowd laughed. Even some of the stagehands chuckled.

“Looks like I missed,” said Avenel. “Keep the coin.”

The crowd was quick to disperse as the assistants and stagehands began to walk around with their bowls of clinking coin. Avenel was talking to Duncan, who had lifted up his blindfold. Deena ran forward to join her, but a man with long red hair bumped into her shoulder, causing her to drop her packages on the ground. “Ah, I’m terribly sorry,” said the man. “Let me help you with that.”

“It’s alright,” said Deena, but the man had already picked up the packages and placed them in her arms.

“Your friend is quite the knife thrower,” said the man.

“Yeah, it’s her specialty,” said Deena, examining the packages. They appeared unharmed from the fall. “Thanks.”

“No, it was my fault,” said the man and hurried off after his companions.

Avenel was just finishing her conversation with Duncan, demonstrating some sort of wrist flick. “Try it a few times,” she was saying. “You’ll get more accuracy at a longer range.” On Deena’s approach, she turned. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “It’s nearly suppertime.”

Deena nodded. “I’m famished.”

“Let’s head back, then,” said Avenel.

The Manticore was apparently a popular spot for dinner, because all the tables were occupied when Deena and Avenel returned. Fortunately, a couple in the corner had just finished their meal, and Deena and Avenel sat down as a serving girl cleared the plates. Deena’s stomach growled, and she contemplated the package of toffee for a moment before deciding to wait until after dinner. Thankfully, their order came quick.

“I’m glad the sweets didn’t spoil your appetite,” said Avenel, as Deena devoured her bowl of stew.

“I guess I didn’t eat much yesterday,” said Deena. She paused. “I’m—I’m sorry again for being rude.”

“It’s alright,” said Avenel. “When we arrive at Olyssa’s, I’d understand if you preferred that I leave.”

Deena shook her head. “I—I feel better when you’re around,” she said. “I meant what I said: you’re all I have.”

Avenel nodded.

Half an hour later, Deena had polished off a plate of peas, two buttered rolls, and half a large sausage in addition to her stew. The room had emptied considerably. Apart from the innkeeper, there was a man dining alone, a couple enjoying a game of chess with their dessert, and a trio of people in travelling cloaks drinking at a table by the door. Deena unwrapped her toffee and broke off a piece. Across the room, one of the chessplayers gave a loud cheer as he gleefully knocked over his opponent’s king.

“He could have won ten turns earlier, if he hadn’t been so careless with his rook,” said Avenel, watching them.

“Do you play?” asked Deena.

“I did,” said Avenel. “Ephraim used it as a tool for teaching strategy.”

“I never learned,” said Deena. “Mr Allard offered to teach us, once, but my friends weren’t very interested.”

“Perhaps Olyssa could teach you. She was quite a good player, even as a child.”

Deena nodded absently. There was something about the trio in the travelling cloaks. “Avenel,” she said, “I think saw those people at the square, after the show.”

Avenel followed her gaze. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, or at least that tall man with the orange hair. He bumped into me.”

Avenel frowned. “I’m sure it’s a coincidence,” she said. “We aren’t far from the square. It wouldn’t be odd for them to come here for dinner afterwards.”

“You’re probably right,” said Deena.

“Are you still hungry?” asked Avenel. “We could order more food, if you like.”

“No, I’m full,” said Deena. “But not too full for toffee,” she added, breaking off another piece. “Would you like some?”

Avenel shook her head. “Take our packages up to our room. I’ll head up after I pay.”

Deena nodded.

Avenel watched her go. The trio in the travelling cloaks made no move to follow Deena up the stairs, or even seem to notice Deena’s leaving. They did not have the look of soldiers or spies about them, but they were armed. There was a broadsword in its sheath leaning against their table, alongside a bow, and there was a crossbow sitting on an empty chair beside them.

Avenel made a show of getting up, stretching, and walking to the counter. One of the trio, a man with broad shoulders and dark hair twisted into ropes, glanced her way.

“You could have paid tomorrow when you pay for your room,” said the innkeeper.

“I know,” said Avenel. She counted out her coins. “Those three in the corner, are they staying here?”

The innkeeper looked over, less surreptitiously than Avenel would have liked. “No,” he said. “They’re just here for food and drink.”

Avenel nodded and handed over the money. Twice more now, she had caught one or another of the trio looking her way. “Thank you,” she said to the innkeeper, and with a feigned casualness, strode out of the inn’s front door.

She shouldn’t have done that at the square, with the knife thrower. It drew too much attention. It was possible that these three were only interested in her wealth, but… Her hand went to Ephraim’s dagger at her belt, the comforting cold of the hilt. It was little secret that Lord Avenel was fond of throwing knives; could they have figured out who she was from that alone?

Outside, it was already dark, and an overcast sky obscured the moon. She climbed up onto the roof of the stables, laying belly-down so she could not be seen from below. Within moments, the door of the inn opened again, and the trio stepped out.

“Did you see where she went?” asked one of them, the tall one with the broad shoulders and dark skin.

“No,” said one of the others, a tall thin man with long red hair.

“Are you sure it was her?” asked the third, a bald woman with a small, slim stature. She had grabbed the crossbow on her way out, but the other two had left their weapons behind.

“I’m positive,” replied the man with the broad shoulders.

“She’ll be back,” said the red-haired man. “The girl went upstairs; they must be staying here.”

The bald woman shook her head. “This is a bad idea, Garth. She’s too dangerous.”

“She won’t kill me, Frost,” said the broad-shouldered man. “I’m too valuable to kill.”

“She doesn’t have to kill you,” replied the woman. “Maybe we could get the girl, while she’s gone.”

“I’m not sure I condone kidnapping children, Sister,” said the redhead.

“I’m not saying to hurt her,” said the woman. “I’m just saying we could use her as leverage.”

Avenel reached for one of her daggers. It would be easy to take out the one with the crossbow before she had time to react, and the other two would never reach their weapons in time. But then she would have three bodies on her hands, three bodies to explain, which meant revealing her identity and her presence to the city’s guards. Besides, these three didn’t seem like common bandits; their clothes were plain enough, but the fine construction and tailored fit gave them away. Not brigands, then, and not soldiers or spies, so what did they want from her?

The easiest thing to do would be to ask. She could kill them later if she had to.

She stood up and stepped forward, letting the light from the inn’s windows illuminate her. “Looking for me?” she asked.

The trio looked up. The dark-skinned man was the first to recover from his surprise. “Lord Avenel of Elyria,” he said with a smile. He bowed, deep enough that it was almost mocking. “A pleasure to see you again.”

“Have we met?” asked Avenel.

“You killed my favorite uncle.”

Avenel paused. She had killed many people in her past, but… “You’re the Queen’s Bastard,” she said.

“I prefer Prince Garthniiel,” said the man.

“Are you looking for revenge?” asked Avenel.

“Hardly,” said Garthniiel. “I’m not stupid, contrary to popular belief. If I tried to kill you, I’m sure you would kill me first, and I would really prefer to not die.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Would you believe me if I said we were sightseeing?” asked Garthniiel. “See, the pubs and taverns in Ajjraea are all alike, and it was beginning to grow stale. We simply wanted to see what Elyria has to offer.”

Avenel raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you aren’t stupid?”

“Nobody’s perfect,” said Garthniiel with a shrug. “Unfortunately the false identity we used to enter your country has been compromised by a, ah, incident at Eswick. We feel that we’ve overstayed our welcome, but I doubt your border guards will allow us to leave without the proper papers, and on our own side, we’d rather no one knew of our little excursion.”

“So you were hoping I could provide you with the papers,” said Avenel. She considered a moment. He did not appear to be lying, and his story certainly aligned with his reputation. The common consensus was that the prince was harmless, with little power at court and little interest in it, but he was still a prince. “I no longer have the authority to grant papers of passage,” said Avenel, “but for the right price, and if you’re willing to wait a little, I could make a forgery.”

“I suppose we don’t have a choice. How long will it take?”

“A few days. My first priority is to continue on to my wardsister’s. Once there, I’ll make your papers.”

“And we’re supposed to just wait here?” asked the bald woman. “How do we even know you’ll come back?”

“Now Frost,” said the prince. “Beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m sure Lord Avenel is a woman of her word.”

“She murdered your uncle Jaliin!”

“Frost, please.”

Avenel studied them for a moment. “You could travel with me, if you like,” she said. “It would save me the trouble of returning. Just be aware that if you harm so much as a hair on my ward or wardsister—”

“—then I’m sure you’ll have all manner painful deaths prepared,” finished Garthniiel. “Again, I would really prefer not to die. You and yours are safe, you have my word.”

Avenel nodded. “We leave in the morning,” she said. “You understand of course, that this won’t be free.”

“Of course,” said Garthniiel. “So how much will you be wanting? I have some gold with me, but if it isn’t enough—”

“Do I look like the type the broker in gold?” asked Avenel.

“I suppose not,” said Garthniiel uncertainly. “So what, ah, what will you be wanting as payment?”

“Information,” said Avenel. “Tell me, have you heard of a town called Taunsgrove?”