“One other thing. Watch your backs through this stretch. I lost two years of my life near here because I wasn’t looking over my shoulder.” He told us how he and an officer from Dalbreck had been pounced upon by labor hunters and dragged off to work in a mining camp.
“We’re well armed,” Wren reminded him.
“And there’s Synové,” I added. “You’ve got this covered, right, Syn?”
She fluttered her eyes like she was seeing a vision, and nodded. “Got it.” Then she flicked her fingers in a sweeping motion and whispered happily, “Now go enjoy your time with your sweetheart.”
Griz bellowed and threw his hand in the air, waving away the notion. He mumbled a curse as he rode away.
We managed to depart with no further instructions from Natiya. It had all been laid out already, both the ruse and the real. Eben and Natiya were going south to Parsuss, the seat of Eislandia, to speak with the king and make him aware we were intervening on his soil. He was a farmer first, like most Eislandians, and his entire army consisted of a few dozen guards who were also laborers in his fields. He was short on resources to deal with disturbances. Griz had also described the king as meek, more of a handwringer than a neck one, and at a loss for how to control his distant northern territories. The queen was sure he wouldn’t object, but she was bound by protocol to inform him. It was a diplomatic precaution in case something went wrong.
But nothing would go wrong. I had promised her.
Even then, the Eislandian king would only be told the ruse of our visit, not our real mission. That was too closely guarded a secret, not to be shared even with the ruling monarch.
I tucked the map away and nudged my horse forward in the direction of Hell’s Mouth. Synové looked back, watching Eben and Natiya go their own way, judging how far apart they rode and whether they were exchanging words. Why she had an affection for him I didn’t know, but there had been others. Synové was in love with love. As soon as they were out of earshot, she asked, “Do you think they’ve done it?”
I was hoping she meant something else, but I asked anyway. “Who did what?”
“Eben and Natiya. You know, it.”
“You’re the one with the knowing,” Wren said. “You should know.”
“I have dreams,” Synové corrected. “And if you both tried a little harder, you’d have dreams too.” Her shoulders shivered with distaste. “But that’s one dream I don’t care to have.”
“She does have a point,” I said to Wren. “Some things shouldn’t be imagined or dreamed.”
Wren shrugged. “I’ve never seen them kiss.”
“Or even hold hands,” Synové added.
“But neither is exactly the affectionate type either,” I reminded them.
Synové’s brow squiggled in contemplation, none of us saying what we all knew. Eben and Natiya were devoted to each other—in a very passionate way. I suspected they had done far more than kissing, though it wasn’t something I dwelled upon. I really didn’t care or want to know. In some ways, I supposed I was like Griz. We were Rahtan first, and there was time for little else. It only created complications. My few brief dalliances with soldiers I had pledged with only led to distractions that I decided I didn’t need—the risky kind, ones that stirred a longing in me and made me think about a future that couldn’t be counted on.
We rode along, with Synové doing most of the talking, as she always did, filling the hours with multiple observations, whether it was the waving grass brushing our horses’ fetlocks or the salty leek soup her aunt used to make. I knew at least part of the reason she did it was to distract me from a flat, empty world that sometimes bobbed and weaved and threatened to fold me into its open mouth. Sometimes her chatter worked. Sometimes I distracted myself in other ways.
Wren suddenly put her hand out as warning and signaled us to stop. “Riders. Third bell,” she said. The sharp edge of her ziethe sliced the air as she drew and spun it, ready. Synové was already nocking an arrow.
In the distance, a dark cloud skimmed the plain, growing larger as it sped toward us. I drew my sword, but then suddenly the dark cloud veered upward, into the sky. It flew close over our heads, a writhing antelope in its claws. The wind from the creature’s wings lifted our hair, and we all instinctively ducked. The horses reared. In a split second, the creature was already gone.
“Jabavé!” Wren growled as we worked to calm our horses. “What the hell was that?”
Griz had neglected to warn us about this. I had heard of these creatures, a rumor really, but thought they were only in the far north country above Infernaterr. Apparently not today.
“Racaa,” Synové answered. “One of the birds that eat Valsprey. I don’t think they eat humans.”
“Think?” Wren yelled. Her brown cheeks glowed with fury. “You’re not sure? How much different could we taste than an antelope?”
I slid my sword back into its scabbard. “Different enough, we can hope.”
Wren recomposed herself, putting her ziethe away. She wore two of them, one on each hip, and kept them razor sharp. She was more than capable of taking on two-legged attackers, but a winged attack required a moment of reassessment. I saw the calculations spinning in her mind. “I could have taken it down.”
No doubt. Wren had the tenacity of a cornered badger.
The demons that drove her were as demanding as mine, and she had honed her skills to a sharp, unforgiving edge. She had watched her family slaughtered in Blackstone Square when her clan made the deadly mistake of cheering for a stolen princess. The same with Synové, and though Syn played the cheerful innocent, there was a lethal undercurrent that ran through her. She had killed more raiders than Wren and I put together. Seven by last count.