I stood, shoving my folded tent into his belly. He took it from me. “I’ve got this, Griz. Relax.”
His head bobbed in a hesitant nod.
“The real question is,” I added, long and drawn out for effect, “do you?”
He eyed me, his brow furrowed in a question, and then he scowled, reaching for his side.
I smiled and held his short dagger out to him.
His scowl turned to a reluctant grin, and he replaced the dagger in its empty sheath. His bushy brows lifted, and he shook his head in approval. “Stay downwind, Ten.”
Ten, my hard-won nickname. It was his acknowledgment of confidence. I wiggled my fingertips in appreciation.
No one, especially not Griz, would ever forget how I had earned it.
“You mean upwind, don’t you?” Eben called.
I glared at Eben. And no one, especially not Eben, would ever forget that my life as Rahtan began the day I spit in the queen’s face.
The queen had been walking the narrow, dirty streets of the Brightmist quarter when I spotted her. I hadn’t planned it, but even events unplanned can whisk us down paths that we never expected to travel, changing our destinies and what defines us. Kazimyrah: orphan, invisible street rat, girl who defied the queen, Rahtan.
I had already been shoved down one path when I was six, and the day I spit in the new queen’s face I was sent reeling down another. That moment had not only defined my future, but the queen’s unexpected response—a smile—had defined her reign. Her sword hung ready in the scabbard at her side. A breathless crowd had waited to see what would happen. They knew what would have happened before. If she were the Komizar, I would have already been lying headless on the ground. Her smile had frightened me more than if she had drawn her sword. I knew at that moment, with certainty, that the old Venda I knew how to navigate was gone, and I would never get it back again. I hated her for it.
When she learned I had no family to summon, she told the guards who had grabbed me to bring me along to Sanctum Hall. I thought I was so very clever back then. Too clever for this young queen. I was eleven years of grit and grovel by then, and impervious to an interloper. I would outwit her just as I did everyone else. It was my realm after all. I had all my fingertips—and a reputation to go with them. In the streets of Venda, they called me “Ten” with whispered respect.
A complete set of fingers was legendary for a thief, or an alleged thief, because if I had ever been caught with stolen goods, my nickname would have been Nine. The eight quarterlords who dispensed the punishment for stealing had a different name for me. To them, I was the Shadowmaker, because even at high noon, they swore, I could conjure a shadow to swallow me up. A few even rubbed hidden amulets when they saw me coming. But just as useful as the shadows was knowing the strategies of street politics and personalities. I perfected my craft, playing the quarterlords and merchants against one another as if I was a musician and they were crude drums rumbling beneath my hands, making one boast to another that I had never pulled anything over on him, making them all feel so very smart, even as I relieved them of items I could put to better use elsewhere. Their egos were my accomplices. The twisting alleyways, tunnels, and catwalks were where I learned my trade, and my stomach was my relentless taskmaster. But there was another kind of hunger that drove me too, a hunger for answers that were not as easily plucked from the wares of a bloated lord. That was my deeper, darker taskmaster.
But because of the queen, almost overnight I witnessed my world dissolving. I had starved and clawed my way to this position. No one was going to take it from me. The cramped, winding streets of Venda were all I had ever known, and its underworld was all I understood. Its members were a desperate coalition who appreciated the warmth of horse dung in winter, a knife in a burlap sack and the trail of spilled grain it left behind, the scowl of a duped merchant realizing he was short an egg in his basket—or, if I was feeling punitive, the whole chicken who had laid it. I had walked away with bigger and noisier things.
I liked to say I stole only because of hunger, but it wasn’t true. Sometimes I stole from the quarterlords just to make their miserable lives more miserable. It made me wonder, if I ever became a quarterlord, would I cut off fingers to secure my place of power? Because power, I had learned, could be just as seductive as a warm loaf of bread, and the small bit I wielded over them was sometimes all the food I needed.
With new treaties signed among the kingdoms allowing settlement of the Cam Lanteux, one by one those whom I thieved for and with left to go live in wide-open spaces to begin new lives. I became a plucked bird flapping featherless wings, suddenly useless, but moving to a farming settlement in the middle of nowhere was something I would not do. It was something I could not do. I learned this when I was nine and had traveled just a short distance beyond the Sanctum walls in search of answers that had eluded me. When I looked back at the disappearing city and saw that I was a mere speck in an empty landscape, I couldn’t breathe and the sky swirled in dizzy currents. It hit me like a smothering wave. There was nowhere to hide. No shadows to melt into, no tent flaps to duck behind or stairs to disappear under—there were no beds to hide beneath in case someone came for me. There was no place to escape to at all. The structure of my world was gone—the floor, the ceilings, the walls—and I floated loose, untethered. I barely made it back to the city and never left again.
I knew I would not survive in a world of open sky. Spitting in the queen’s face had been my futile stab at saving the existence I had carved out. My life had already been stolen once. I refused to let it happen again, but it happened just the same. Some rising tides cannot be held back, and the new world slipped around my ankles like water at the shore and pulled me into its current.
My first months in Sanctum Hall were turbulent. Why no one strangled me I still wasn’t certain. I would have. I stole everything in sight, and out of sight, and hoarded it in a secret passage beneath the East Tower staircase. No one’s private chambers were immune. Natiya’s favorite scarf, Eben’s boots, the cook’s wooden spoons, swords, belts, books, armory halberds, the queen’s hairbrush. Sometimes I gave them back, sometimes I didn’t, bestowing mercies like a capricious queen. Griz roared and chased me through the halls the third time I stole his razor.
Finally, one morning, the queen
applauded me as I walked into the Council gallery, saying it was evident I had mastered thieving, but it was time I learned additional skills.
She rose and handed me a sword I had stolen.
I locked eyes with her, wondering how she had gotten hold of it. “I know that passage well too, Kazimyrah. You aren’t the only sneak in the Sanctum. Let’s put this to better use than rusting in a dark, damp stairwell, shall we?”
For the first time, I didn’t resist.
I wanted to learn more. I didn’t just want to possess the swords, knives, and maces I had acquired. I wanted to know how to use them too, and use them well.
* * *
The landscape was getting flatter now, as if huge hands had anticipated our passing and smoothed out the wrinkles of hills. The same hands must have plucked the hills clean of ruins. It was strange to see nothing. I had never traveled long on any path where some evidence of an earlier world wasn’t in view. The Ancients’ ruins were plentiful, but here there wasn’t so much as a single crumbling wall to cast a measly shadow. Nothing but open sky and unfettered wind pressing on my chest. I forced in deep, full breaths, focusing on a point in the distance, pretending it held a magical shadowed city waiting to greet me.
Griz had stopped and was conferring with Eben and Natiya about meet-up sites. It was time to part ways. When he was finished, he turned and cast a suspicious eye at the vastness ahead of us like he was searching for something. His gaze finally landed on me. I stretched and smiled as if I were enjoying a summer outing. The sun was high and threw sharp shadows across his battle-scarred face. The lines around his eyes deepened.