With her arrow back in its quiver, Synové resumed her chatter. At least for the rest of our ride she had something else to talk about. Racaa were a whole new diversion.
But the racaa’s shadow sent my thoughts tumbling in another direction. By this time next week, it would be us swooping down on Hell’s Mouth, casting our own shadow, and if all went well, within a short time I would be departing with something far more vital than an antelope in my claws.
Six years ago a war was waged, the bloodiest the continent had ever seen. Thousands died, but only a handful of men were its architects. One of those men was still alive, and some thought he was the worst—the Watch Captain of the citadelle in Morrighan. He betrayed the very kingdom he had sworn to protect, and slowly infiltrated the fortress with enemy soldiers in order to weaken Morrighan and help it to fall. Some soldiers who had been under his command had simply disappeared, maybe because they became suspicious. Their bodies were never found. His crimes were numerous. Among them, helping to poison the king and murder the crown prince and thirty-two of his comrades. The Watch Captain had been the most hunted fugitive on the continent ever since.
He had twice escaped the kingdoms’ clutches, and then he seemed to have vanished completely. No one had seen him in five years, but now a chance sighting and a merchant eager to share information had become a hopeful lead. He gave over his own kingdom, the queen had told me, and the lives of thousands to feed his greed for more. Hungry dragons may sleep for years, but they do not change their eating habits. He must be found. The dead demand justice, as do the living.
Even before I visited the valley of dead, I already knew the cost of lurking dragons, ones who crept through the night, crashing into a world and devouring whatever pleased them. The queen’s fugitive would pay because he stole dreams and lives without ever looking back, not caring about the destruction he left in his wake. Some dragons might slip away forever, but if Captain Illarion, who betrayed his countrymen and brought about the death of thousands, was there, Tor’s Watch could not hide him. I would steal him away, and he would pay—before his hunger killed more.
I need you, Kazimyrah. I believe in you. The queen’s belief in me had meant everything.
It was a job I was uniquely qualified for, and this mission was an undeserved chance to redeem myself. A year ago, I’d made a mistake that almost cost me my life and put a blemish on the near perfect record of the queen’s premier guard. Rahtan meant “never fail,” but I had failed dismally. Hardly a day pass
ed that I didn’t think of it.
When I had mistaken an ambassador from Reux Lau for someone else, it had unleashed something wild and feral in me that I didn’t know was there—or maybe it was a wounded animal I had been secretly feeding for a long time. My hands and legs were not my own, and they propelled me forward. I hadn’t intended to stab him, at least not immediately, but he lunged unexpectedly. He survived my attack. Luckily my knife hadn’t slashed deeply. His wound only required a few stitches. Our whole crew was arrested and thrown in prison. As soon as it was determined I acted alone, they were released—but I sat in a prison cell in a southern province for two months. It took the queen herself to smooth it over and obtain my release.
Those months gave me a lot of time to think. In a split second, I had abandoned my control and patience—the very things I took pride in and that had saved my skin for years. And maybe worse, the mistake made me question my own memory. Maybe I didn’t remember his face anymore. Maybe it was gone like so many other memories that had faded, and that possibility terrified me even more. If I didn’t remember, he could be anywhere and anyone.
Once we returned, it was Eben who told the queen about my past. I didn’t know how he even knew. I had never told anyone, and no one really cared about where a street rat came from. There were too many of us.
The queen had called me into her private chamber. “Why didn’t you tell me about your mother, Kazimyrah?”
My heart beat madly, and a sick, salty taste crawled up my throat. I forced it down and locked my knees, afraid they might buckle.
“There’s nothing to tell. My mother is dead.”
“Are you certain she’s dead?”
In my heart I was certain, and I prayed to the gods every day that she was.
“If the gods are merciful.”
The queen asked if we might talk about it. I knew she was only trying to help me, and I did owe her a fuller explanation after all she had done for me, but this was a confused knot of memory and anger I hadn’t untangled myself yet. I excused myself without answering her.
When I left her chamber, I cornered Eben in the stairwell and lashed out. “Stay out of my business, Eben! Do you hear me? Stay out!”
“You mean stay out of your past. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Kazi. You were six years old. It’s not your fault that your—”
“Shut up, Eben! Don’t ever bring up my mother again or I’ll slit your throat and it will happen so quickly and quietly, you won’t even know you’re dead.”
His arm shot out, and he blocked my way so I couldn’t pass. “You need to confront your demons, Kazi.”
I lunged at him, but I was out of control and he wasn’t. He expected my attack and whirled me around, pinning me to his chest, squeezing me so tightly I couldn’t breathe even as I railed against him.
“I understand, Kazi. Believe me, I understand what you feel,” he had whispered in my ear.
I raged. I screamed. No one could understand. Especially not Eben. I hadn’t yet come to grips with the memories he stirred. He couldn’t know that every time I looked at his stringy black mop of hair hanging over his eyes, or his pale, bloodless skin, or his dark, menacing gaze, all I saw was the Previzi driver who had crept into my hovel in the middle of the night, holding a lantern in the darkness asking, Where is the brat? All I saw was myself cowering in a pool of my own waste, too afraid to move. I was not afraid anymore.
“You’ve been given a second chance, Kazi. Don’t throw it away. The queen stuck her neck out for you. She can only do that so many times. You’re not powerless anymore. You can make other things right.”
He held me tight until there was no struggle left in me. I was weak when I finally pulled free, still angry, and I skulked away to hide in a dark passage of the Sanctum where no one could find me.
I learned later from Natiya that maybe Eben did understand. He was five when he witnessed an ax being planted in his mother’s chest and he watched while his father was burned alive. His family had tried to settle in the Cam Lanteux before there were treaties to protect them. He was too young to identify who did it or even to know what kingdom they were from. Finding justice was impossible for him, but his parents’ deaths remained etched in his memory. As I got to know Eben better and worked with him more, I no longer saw the Previzi driver when I looked at him. I just saw Eben along with his own quirks and habits—and someone who had his own scarred past.
Make other things right.
It was a turning point for me, yet another new start. More than anything I wanted to prove my loyalties to someone who had not only given me a second chance, but had also given all of Venda a second chance. The queen.