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Malysa was trapped.
Trapped forever in this place, under this rock. Her world for so long had been nothing but this hell. A world only large enough to shift from side to side. No more than a foot of breathing room. Nothing at all but her own mind and the shadows.
Others would have gone mad by now. Years passed in a blur as easily as days once had. Thousands of years in imprisonment for building the life that she had always wanted. For seeing something more than the happy ray of sunshine her sister, Benetta, had wanted for this sad, backward world.
They were Doma.
The first Doma in Emporia.
Goddesses from on high.
They would not need to submit to a Doma council. They would not listen to a rule of the many. They would not allow these mongrels to believe they were better than them.
Except Benny had.
Malysa shuddered in her prison. She hated thinking of her sister. That traitorous wretch who had found a way to break her and leave her here, in these mountains.
No. She would not think of Benny. It depleted her limited energy. She had too much to do, so much to accomplish, that she could not waste it on her sister. But she knew that, when she got out of here, the first thing she would do was hunt her down. She wouldn’t kill her…not at first. Torture. At least a thousand years of good torture before she was satisfied.
She gritted her teeth in the darkness and shifted another step over. She had had a long time to consider all the things she would do to her sister for trapping her here. But that was neither here nor now.
She needed to conserve. Because her sister had not accounted for her influence outside of the physical. She had always been better at mind games than her, and she had only gotten better while trapped here. Her favorites still answered to her calls, though they could not see her. Control had gotten easier and easier. Two thousand years ago had been the height. She had believed that she would have the energy to escape. Then, that bitch had ruined everything.
Malysa steadied herself.
No, she would not let that happen again.
She would get out, gain control, and win this battle once and for all.
Suddenly, an energy blast seemed to crash through the mountains. It didn’t touch Malysa, of course, cocooned as she was, but it rocked her mountain home. Her eyes lit up as the earthquake erupted around her. Something shifted, just enough for a sliver of light to break through to her prison cell.
The first beam of light in thousands of years.
She probed the area with her magic, and to her delight, she found its weakness. The light could not respond to the darkness any more than darkness responded to light. They were anathema to each other. Cracking through the defense was like slicing through an open mind—effortless.
The rocks split away.
A hole appeared before her.
And then she stepped out of her prison cell for the first time.
Malysa breathed in deeply, pulling in that first breath of fresh air. It was glorious. She looked out to this world from her prison in the Haeven Mountains. The world was blanketed in snow and ice. Sunlight bounced off of the white winter wonderland. And her darkness settled into it all.
It was a new dawn.
“I’m free, sister,” Malysa said with a laugh. “Free from this prison you created. I loved you, and this was how you repaid that love. I will remember that.”
Malysa stared down at her form. Not even corporal any longer. Just shadow and ash and smoke. She was but a hint of what she had once been. Before, she could have torn these mountains asunder with a wave of her hand. Now, she could barely call her followers to her.
Perhaps Benetta had used these mountains as a prison, but until Malysa regained her strength, she would use them for cover. She did not want to alert anyone too soon to her freedom. She could wreak enough havoc from here.
But, to replenish her powers, she was going to need a lot of help. She closed her eyes and dug deep until she found the closest village. Any farther, and she wouldn’t have even been able to get into their puny minds. Only those who called for her could she usually maintain. But today was different. Today, she was free.
She reached her powers into every single mind and commanded they journey up the mountain.
One by one, the villagers assembled before her.
They fell to their knees at the sight of her. Tears streaming down their faces. Then, she sliced their necks open and let the blood turn the white mountain red.
She drank in their sacrifice, imbuing her essence with blood magic. Letting it fill her and fill her and fill her. And still, when the entire village was dead at her feet, she felt nothing. She knew what she needed…
That was when the real fun would begin.
Chapter 1—The Mystic
Avoca lay on her deathbed.
And Cyrene could do nothing but sit uselessly and watch.
“Cyrene, Ahlvie,” Vera said, appearing at the doorway, “it’s time.”
Cyrene eyed the Master Doma with a sigh and then stood, her bones creaking in protest. She adjusted the strange Biencan shawl around her shoulders and brushed out her long skirt. She was still uncertain about the sliver of stomach that she revealed in the form-fitting blouse, but it was important to fit in.
Better for anyone inquiring to believe they were merchants in from Yarrow than their true identities. Affiliates were looked down upon in most other countries, but the Byern consort…that would lead to too many questions. A title she hadn’t even wanted was certainly more trouble than it had ever been worth. She was sure that King Edric and Prince Kael would do much to get her back, and keeping a low profile assured their safety.
Cyrene reached out and put her hand on Ahlvie’s shoulder. “Are you coming with us?”
She could see the answer painted on his brow. He didn’t want to leave. He hadn’t left Avoca’s side in the two weeks it had taken them to get out of the Barren Mountains and on a boat in Yarrow to Bienco.
“You don’t have to.”
“Do you think this spiritual, mystic person will be able to help Avoca any more than the healer…any more than you or Vera or Matilde?” His golden eyes were wide and luminescent…almost as if they glowed from within.
“I don’t know, but I have to try.”
She wanted to say so much more, but Ahlvie wasn’t ready to think of anything but Avoca. He’d lost all motivation to continue their mission to find the lost ones. Dragons were about the last thing on his mind.
“You’re right.” Ahlvie rose to his feet. “We have to try.”
Vera touched both of their shoulders in comfort as they passed. “Be well. I will look after Avoca.”
Ahlvie forlornly glanced back once more before following Cyrene from the room. “You can still feel her, right?”
He’d asked about the bond a hundred times since this had all happened. It was still in place. Avoca was alive. Though, with what the Nokkin had done when it stole Avoca’s magic, the damage was severe.
That was the horrible word the healer had used. Her bound sister was in a coma. She might wake up. She might stay in this silent sleep forever. A magical feeding tube down her throat, which Vera had constructed, was her only constant. It was horrifying to behold.
“Yes, I can feel her.”
He nodded and then followed her out of the room. They hurried down the stairs and found Orden standing by the fire. Orden was the kind of person she always wanted to have on her side. He knew his way around every city. He could bribe or talk his way out of anything. She wondered how he had found this mystic, but asking would be pointless.
Orden clapped Ahlvie on the back when they approached. “Chin up, boy. We have quite an evening ahead of us.”
Ahlvie shrugged his hand off. “I’m here. Let’s go.”
Orden nodded approvingly and then guided them out of the inn and onto the hard-packed dirt streets. Night was falling, but in Bienco, that meant the city was coming alive. It was a place of revelry and excess and debauchery. Whole sections were blocked off for large street festivals where pickpockets and prostitutes alike earned their keep.
Cyrene was none too pleased when they walked toward the festival instead of away from it. Of course, the mystic kept shop in the exact opposite side of town where she wanted to be. Couldn’t ask for a respectable mystic after all. Much too easy.
She blew out a breath and prepared herself for this meeting. She needed to keep her head on her shoulders. Her grief had consumed her after Maelia’s death. Left her in this black hole that Kael Dremylon had tried to walk her out of with dark blood magic and deceit. She never wanted to find that hole again or be the person she had been before she came out on the other side of it. She was something new now. No one had ever survived blood magic without it burning them out, and she refused to succumb to that, even with the terror about Avoca hanging over her head.
The revelry could be heard from blocks away. Cyrene knew she was upon it long before she got there. Somehow, it still felt sudden when they were encased on all sides by a parade of people in elaborate dresses, intricate headpieces, large masks, and music…so much music.
Orden took Cyrene’s hand, and she grasped Ahlvie’s as they wove through the crowd. Orden halted outside of a closed door with the burgundy curtains pulled shut. Herbs grew in boxes on the windowsill, but otherwise, it appeared the place was empty. He banged on the front door, and Cyrene was surprised when a gnarly blind woman answered.
“Ah, it’s you,” she said and then turned around and walked back inside.
Cyrene exchanged a glance with Ahlvie, but he just shrugged. Orden gestured to move inside, and they did, promptly closing the door behind them.
Candles were lit in the room but hardly enough to see where they were going. Let alone to illuminate the full room.
“Have a seat,” the woman said, gesturing her dark brown hand at the table. “Use that fire magic to light the rest while you’re at it, girl.”
Cyrene startled. “Did you tell…”
Orden shook his head.
“I know it when I see it.” Then, she cackled at her own joke.
“Are you…gifted?” Cyrene asked.
“In my own way.” The woman looked right at her. “But not like you. It is not often I see someone so clearly.” She traced an outline of Cyrene’s figure. “I read auras…among other things.”
“Birdie,” Orden said softly.
“She radiates golden. I would have known Doma magic a league off from the looks of it.”
“Birdie,” Orden repeated a bit sharper.
“Yes, yes, of course. Light the candles and sit,” Birdie said, taking a seat at the head of the table.
Cyrene went to work, lighting all the candles for the old woman until the room was practically blazing. She eased down, uncertain of how to take the news that there was someone out there who could read her magic. Even if she claimed it was her aura. It scared her.
“You’re here about the boat,” Birdie finally said.
“No, about our friend who is sick,” Ahlvie corrected.
“I cannot heal the sick.”
Ahlvie jumped up in a rage and glared at Orden. “Why did you bring us here if you already knew that?”
Orden didn’t rise to Ahlvie’s anger. “Sit down and listen.”
“You know what, Orden?” Ahlvie growled. His skin began to ripple. His golden eyes turned menacing. His beautiful hands grew into claws right before their eyes. He heaved in air, and the Indres within threatened to rip its way out of him.
Then, without a backward glance, Ahlvie loped out of the room and slammed the door so hard behind him that it rattled the building.
“Fascinating,” Birdie said.
Cyrene gritted her teeth and turned back to face the old woman. There was nothing they could do about Ahlvie right now. And, if Birdie had answers, then Cyrene would wait for them.
“Birdie, we would appreciate whatever information you have. As you know, I am well within my means to pay for the information,” Orden supplied.
“You know, I always did like you.” Birdie wagged her finger in his direction. “I told Gwynora, dear, that she should give you a second chance.”
Cyrene arched an eyebrow in question.
“Ancient history,” Orden remarked to both of them.
“So you say.” Birdie shook her hand at him and then reached for a leather pouch on the table. “Now, tell me exactly what you want, and I will read for you.”
Orden caught Cyrene’s eye and then nodded as if to say it was her turn.
She took a deep breath. “We want to know if there is someone in Bienco who could take us across the ocean to the land of the lost ones…to Alandria. We need a boat and a crew with the knowledge to get us there.” She paused for a moment before adding, “And, hopefully…something to heal our friend.”
Birdie closed her eyes, shook the bag, and then dumped the contents into a large, flat bowl. Cyrene was appalled to see it was full of…bones. Little bones all splayed out. She shuddered.
Birdie held her hand over the scattering of bones and hummed softly to herself. “There is such a man who has crossed these waters and returned. You can find him on the docks at sunrise, wearing a red feather in his hat. He will be with a woman in men’s clothes.”
She tilted her head to the side and frowned. Then, she blinked rapidly and dropped her hand. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and she was breathing heavily.
Orden jumped up to assist her. “Birdie?”
“Are you all right?” Cyrene asked.
“Your friend…is in darkness,” she spoke hoarsely.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Nothing of this world can save her.”
Chapter 2—The Old Friend
“Birdie?” Orden asked in a panic.
Birdie collapsed forward, and Orden barely caught her in his arms before she hit the table.
“Cyrene, a little help over here.”
She rushed over and carefully leaned Birdie back. Cyrene made sure she was breathing and then checked her pulse. It was erratic at best.
“I think she fainted.”
“Creator,” Orden cursed. “We can’t leave her here like this.”
Just then, the back door crashed open, and a figure rushed into the room, brandishing a sword. Her skin was the same dark brown as Birdie’s, and she had a long, dark mane flowing down her back. She wore fighting leathers and was armed to her teeth. She would have been glorious to behold…if not for the fact that she was about to skin them alive.
Cyrene latched on to her magic to use against this woman, but she never had a chance.
“Gwynora?” Orden whispered like a prayer.
The woman turned to face him, straightening and somehow gaining even more height. Her eyes rounded when she beheld who was before her. “Orden?”
She didn’t lower her blade. “What are you doing in my grandmother’s home?”
“We came for a reading.” He pointed at the bowl full of bones.
“We?” Gwynora glanced once at Cyrene. “Drop your magic, or I’ll gut him like a swine.”
“Just do what she says,” Orden said.
Cyrene ground her teeth together but released her hold on her powers, letting the sweet feeling dissipate. “She has the gift, too?”
“It skips a generation,” Gwynora informed her. “Now, tell me the truth as to why you are here and what you are doing with my grandmother.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snarled.
Orden held his hands up. “We have been looking for someone who knows a way across the ocean. I exhausted all of my other options in the city before I came to see Birdie, and she offered her assistance.”
“Of course she did. She’s senile.” Gwynora gestured for them to move away. “Let me check on her.”
Cyrene and Orden slowly backed away from the edge of her blade.
“Grandmother,” Gwynora cooed. She slowly ran her hand in front of Birdie’s face, as if she were testing something. “Grandmother Birdie, are you all right?”
But Birdie didn’t wake up. She just lay there, breathing deeply.
“She has depleted her energy. She is old and frail, and you should have known better.”
“My apologies,” he said quickly.
Gwynora whirled her blade in a circle. “Get out of my house.”
“Gwyn, we didn’t mean to—”
“I said, get out of my house!” she roared. “Take your new magic toy with you and go save the world.” She sneered. “Cross the ocean. Do whatever it is the great Orden of Aurum has up his sleeve and leave me…us out of it.”
Orden swallowed and looked as if he was about to say something. But Cyrene was pretty sure, if he did, Gwynora was going to launch that blade right at his throat. And Cyrene was good…but she didn’t want to have to find out if she could save him in time.
“We’re going,” Cyrene said. She shoved Orden toward the exit. “I’m sorry about your grandmother, and please tell Birdie we said thank you when she wakes up.”
Gwynora bared her teeth at Cyrene in response.
Cyrene pulled the door closed behind them and turned to face Orden, who was staring off into the festival. She opened her mouth to ask him what had just happened, but the words died on her lips. A year ago—honestly, just a couple of months ago—she would have made some quip and demanded answers to what she’d witnessed. But she could guess enough from the altercation to know…he wasn’t ready to talk about it. If he had never once mentioned Gwynora in all their time together, today probably wasn’t the time either.
“Don’t,” he finally said.
“I wasn’t going to.” She patted his back twice. “Why don’t we get back to the inn and have a few tankards of ale?”
Orden’s eyebrows rose. “Truly?”
“I think it would help everyone after what we heard and saw tonight.”
Orden gave her a relieved smile, and then they disappeared through the crowd once more.
Cyrene’s mind buzzed with all the new information she’d gained from one short meeting. Another magical user and one who could see when others had powers. That was an incredible gift. It brought a touch of a smile to her face as they veered back out of the festivities. But that was the only thing bringing a smile to her face these days.
Birdie’s warning about Avoca was…a disaster. How was she supposed to tell Ahlvie that? Let alone that they were staking their reputation on finding a man with a red feather in his hat, who could hopefully take them across the ocean to this Alandria. It sounded ludicrous, but she had come to realize that, sometimes, the best plans were the ones that were most unexpected.
All she knew was that Serafina had told her to find the lost ones to learn her spirit magic.
As if it were so easy.
As if it even made any sense that she was communicating with the ancient Domina Serafina. Her entire life, she had been raised to believe that Serafina had been a tyrant who was killed by Viktor Dremylon to end her reign of terror. But not only had Viktor and Serafina been in love, but they had also bound themselves to each other, using dark blood magic, which crossed generations. That binding still held Cyrene and Kael in its clutches, driving them forward to their destiny. The Heir of the Light and the Heir of the Darkness would face off to decide humanity’s fate.
A fate she was running headlong into.
She still struggled with the fact that she was descended from the ancient Domina herself. She didn’t know if she would ever understand her destiny. Just that she would do anything to stop the persecution of people with magic and to allow people to be free to live as they chose. And, if Serafina’s warnings were any indication, a dark force was growing in Emporia, and she needed to be ready to combat it when the time was right.
When they finally reached the inn once more, Orden turned to Cyrene and said, “Mind not mentioning Gwynora in all of this?”
“I don’t see how she’s relevant to our plans.”
He shot her a wry smile. “You have come a long way since I first met you.”
“I’d hope so. I was bleeding out when you met me.”
He guffawed. “You were impulsive and believed everything you ever did would end the way that you wanted it to. You might have earned your caution the hard way, but it looks good on you.”
“Thank you.” Cyrene’s throat was tight.
They moved through the inn and up the stairs to find that Vera, Matilde, and Mikel had congregated in Avoca’s room. Cyrene was still baffled and amazed at the sight of Matilde’s husband, Mikel. He had been under a sleeping draught for over two thousand years and believed that it had been a matter of days. He remembered nothing from his time sleeping, just that he had been left behind by The Society to let others know that the members and dragons had gone to Alandria. Except the mountain had caved in, and no one had ever found him…until now.
“Is there nothing else that you could try, Mikel?” Matilde asked again.
“I was a warrior, not a medic. We tried using our magic and imbuing her with the elements to replenish her supply. It will take time, and even then…I don’t know. If we could reach my kin in Aonia, then perhaps they would know where to begin in such an instance.”
All eyes shot to her standing in the doorway.
“Did you say Aonia?” Cyrene whispered.
“Yes,” Mikel said, standing up straight at her question.
“I am. Many of us dragon riders were Leifs.”
Matilde reached out and placed her hand on Mikel’s arm. “My love, I have wanted to tell you.” She glanced to Vera once, who nodded. “Aonia…was destroyed. The ancient temple and tree were burned. You have only one living relative left from that Leif settlement.”
Mikel’s eyes were wide with horror at this revelation. “Just one?”
“Ceis’f,” Cyrene said.
She couldn’t imagine how he must feel; after everything he’d been through, he’d just discovered that he had no one else left from his home, except…Ceis’f.
He shook his head. “I think I need a minute.”
Then, he disappeared from sight.
“I’m sorry,” Cyrene said.
Matilde held her hand up. “He had to know sooner or later.”
“Yes, but with so much else going on…”
“He is strong,” Vera told her. “He needs time to process. We know someone else who recently needed time to process the death of his people.”
Cyrene swallowed and glanced away. Dean. They hadn’t talked about him since he left their party in Fen. They had said good-bye that day in the mountains, but he had promised it was not forever. As prince of Eleysia, he had to get his home back under control after Kael burned the capital city to the ground. Her feelings were still mixed up about Dean, and she didn’t like to think about him. They had more pressing matters to concern themselves with.
“How is Avoca?” Cyrene asked instead of responding.
“The same,” Vera replied. “I see that you have returned without Ahlvie. Your meeting must not have gone very well.”
Orden pulled out a chair and sank down into it. “Ahlvie shifted and disappeared. The meeting was, however, fruitful.”
“Some good news finally,” Matilde said.
Cyrene explained all that Birdie had told them. But, by the end of the conversation, the twins looked less impressed.
“A mystic,” Matilde said with a sigh. “Just what we wanted.”
“The last one was—” Vera began.
“Out of her mind, yes.”
“They all kind of are, aren’t they?”
“The ones we’ve encountered over the years. I don’t put much stock in their…powers.”
Vera sighed. “Neither do I. True Doma magic doesn’t need crutches.”
“Hello? We’re still here,” Cyrene said, waving her hand. “You’ve met someone like this before?”
“Yes. Quite unreliable. Usually insane,” Matilde said.
“So…you think we shouldn’t look for this person at the docks?”
“Of course you should look,” Vera told her. “But, if you don’t find anything…it’s likely because she’s a quack.”
“I’ve known Birdie for many years, and she is not a quack,” Orden finally interjected.
Matilde and Vera raised their eyebrows.
“Why do I feel as if there is a part of the story you left out?” Matilde asked.
“I vouch for her, and that is all you need to know.”
Matilde scoffed, but Vera placed her hand on her arm.
“Tomorrow, we need to scour the docks. Hopefully, Ahlvie will be back by then, so we’ll have more of us out there,” Cyrene told them. “Unless anyone has a better idea about how we’re supposed to cross an ocean.”
As predicted, no one did.
“Great. Let’s just…get some sleep and figure out everything tomorrow.”
Orden nodded his head at her. A silent thanks for not divulging anything about Gwynora. Matilde and Vera seemed suspicious and shockingly prejudice against a mystic they had never met. There had to be a story there that they weren’t telling them. But, whatever it was, they both told Cyrene good night and left her alone with Avoca.
Cyrene sighed and plopped down next to her friend. She probed the bond between them, thankful once again that it was still there.
“I wish you were here, Ava,” she whispered into the silence. “I wonder what you’d say about all of this mystic business. If you’d crack a joke or agree with the twins. Or mostly roll your eyes at Ahlvie.”
But Avoca didn’t acknowledge that Cyrene was talking to her.
She didn’t do anything but continue to lie there, sleeping.
Despite the fact that walking into this new problem, they had more knowledge than normal, Cyrene felt even more lost. Avoca was her tether. She was strong and steadfast. And their magic worked better together than it ever did apart.
And it made her wonder how much of what Vera and Avoca had said was true. Doma magic needed no crutches. But Cyrene felt as if she had been using Avoca as a crutch all this time. Without her, Cyrene felt…empty.
Not just in her magic, but also in her soul.
Chapter 3—The Red Feather
When Cyrene awoke the next morning, a giant Indres lay at the foot of their beds.
She gasped and jolted to her feet. Then, gleaming golden eyes glanced over at her. Gold eyes. Human eyes. Ahlvie’s eyes.
“I’m okay,” she said, trying to get her heart rate back under control and releasing her magic, all at once.
Ahlvie’s beast form still shocked her. She didn’t know if she would ever get used to seeing the giant wolf-like body and enormous fangs and knowing that it was her friend and not her sworn enemy.
It wasn’t Ahlvie’s fault that he had been shifted into an Indres. Just really bad luck. When his village had been attacked when he was a baby, he’d been bitten. His life had been saved, and the magic was held within him by Ceis’f, no less. When he had been attacked by the Alpha Indres and won, they had claimed him as their own. Now, he had this other form that he was still learning to control. And, Creator, it was terrifying.
“Change out of that. We have work today,” Cyrene instructed him.
He glared at her, and she took another step back. Maybe bossing him around when he was a savage beast wasn’t in her best interest.
But then he began to ripple again, as he had done at Birdie’s place, and then he was lying on the floor, stark naked. She tossed a sheet over him as he panted from the exertion.
“Welcome back,” she said.
“You know I like to make an entrance.” Ahlvie shot her one of his characteristic grins.
“How could I forget?”
“How is she?” His smile faded again. He got to his feet, pulling the sheet tight around his waist.
“Any news from that mystic?”
“About Avoca?” Cyrene chewed on her lip. “No, we’re still working on it.”
She hated lying. But, if she told him right now that there was nothing in this world that could save Avoca, he’d start rippling before her eyes again. And she needed him here, as her Ahlvie.
“But she did give us a tip on a sailor who has been to Alandria.”
Ahlvie’s eyes shot to hers in surprise. “Someone actually has, and we’re not just hoping that this two-thousand-year-old guy isn’t out of his mind?”
“Yep. Someone actually has. And that Mikel,” Cyrene said with an eye roll, “our two-thousand-year-old guy is a Leif from Aonia.”
Ahlvie’s mouth dropped open. “Like Ceis’f?”
“Yeah. He’s not the only Leif from Aonia anymore.”
“I bet he’d just be so excited to hear that,” Ahlvie muttered sarcastically. “The guy whose entire existence is based around being the last of his kind. I’m not sure he’s ready for that identity crisis.”
Cyrene shook her head. “Not that you have any hard feelings for him or anything.”
“None at all,” he said derisively.
“Back to business. I need you to help me find a man with a red feather in his hat at the docks. He’ll be with a woman in men’s clothing, and that’s about as much as we know. Care to put on your mendicant costume and get us some information?”
He seemed to withdraw into himself at the mention of leaving Avoca’s side. “I don’t know, Cyrene…”
“You have a particular skill set that we need right now. We need you. I need you,” she pleaded with him. “I don’t want to leave Avoca either, but if this is our shot to find Alandria, we have to take it.”
It took him a second, but then he finally looked back at Cyrene. “You know I will always be here for you.”
She kept waiting for him to tack on a but to the end of that statement, but he never did. She just nodded her head. She understood beyond words what this was doing to both of them.
“Good. Get dressed, and we’ll head out.”
Ahlvie gestured to the sheet wrapped around his waist. “You don’t think people will talk to me like this?”
Cyrene rolled her eyes. “I think we might attract the wrong crowd.”
Ahlvie winked at her, shot one more forlorn look at Avoca, and then disappeared to change.
She heaved a huge sigh of relief. It seemed like, at least for the time being, she had her Ahlvie back. She doubted it would last, but it seemed that his outburst and shift last night had helped him burn off some of that anger. And it couldn’t have come a day too soon because she really needed him again.
Because her party was fragmenting into pieces.
And she was stuck, trying to hold them all together with her bare hands.
Ahlvie eyed the Biencan docks skeptically. “You know it’s bad when I’m uncertain about whether or not we’re safe here.”
“We’ll have to make do.” Cyrene tightened her grip on his sleeve.
Bienco was infamous for its crime rates, and the docks were some of the poorest parts of town. Vagabonds lay out, nearly naked, on the filthy dirt road. Sailors from all walks of life traveled up and down the boardwalk before the docks where taverns were open day and night, serving large quantities of alcohol and sex. Everyone had at least three visible knives on them, and not a one of them had seen a bath in at least a week.
It was hardly a place where Cyrene could hope to blend in. She looked like a proper lady in these parts, and all it did was draw attention. Ahlvie at least looked like the thief he was, but Cyrene didn’t know if it was enough. It might have been better to stay home, and she said as much to him.
“Maybe, but it’s too late now. Leaving would show weakness.”
So, she held her head high and continued forward into the gloom of the dockyard.
“Excuse me,” Ahlvie said as they approached the first ship with a crew that didn’t look like they would gut them.
“Don’t want any trouble,” the man said. He spit over the side of the dock and into the water.
“No trouble. We’re simply looking for someone. A man with a red feather in his hat. He is usually with a woman in men’s clothing. Ever seen someone like that?”
“Nope. Now, move along.”
Ahlvie grinned and then kept moving. They walked up and down the dock, asking around about the red-feathered man. Their eyes were peeled, searching out every hat in sight, but it was clear that, if the red-feathered man was here, he was not on the docks in plain view.
“Taverns?” Cyrene asked. “As long as you don’t try to sell me this time.”
“It was for a good cause.”
She rolled her eyes. Good cause for Ahlvie was a dice game.
“Maybe I should try to gamble. Show them that we’ll spend coin.”
Cyrene laughed. “Likely, they won’t want to tell us anything after they see the way you gamble.”
He shot her a feral grin. “Chance I’m willing to take.”
They walked into the first tavern they could find with a dice game Ahlvie could win—i.e., cheat at—and he sat down at the table. Cyrene ordered a round for the table, and a cheer went up in the hall.
For the next two hours, they wasted away in front of the dice table. Cyrene even forgot for a short while that they were using this distraction to make headway on the docks. It was actually fun to pretend to be someone else. To live a life where her biggest worry was whether or not she won the game in front of her.
But, by the time they left, everyone, save for she and Ahlvie, were thoroughly drunk. She had been tossing out her own drink over the side every chance she got, knowing she had to keep her wits about her. She wrapped an arm around Ahlvie’s pretend drunken form as he scooped up the last of his winnings.
“Thank you. Thank you, kind sir,” Ahlvie said, bowing exaggeratedly. “The woman needs me home. But I shall return!”
A cheer rose up from the crowd surrounding the table, but most of the men playing looked as if they would be glad if Ahlvie never returned. He did have a way of emptying their pockets. She supported him out of the room and down the two stairs, continuing the charade as he started singing some doxy song.
“Okay. All right. That’s enough. Drop the act,” she said three blocks later when she was tiring of holding him up.
“What act?” Ahlvie asked. Then, he pitched forward and nearly fell face-first into the dirt.
“Creator, Ahlvie! Were you truly drinking all that ale?”
“I feel so far away.”
Cyrene wanted to scream. Just wonderful. What was she going to do about getting him back to the inn? Let alone all that time they’d put in, and now, they couldn’t even ask around about the red feather. Curses, Ahlvie!
She was trying to readjust her grip on Ahlvie when she felt gooseflesh erupt on the back of her neck. She swallowed and looked behind her. Several of the men who had been playing at the card table were now following them. Two had knives out, and one had some kind of bat. She could likely take them herself with her magic, but that would certainly draw attention.
“Hey, girlie.” One leered.
“We just want to talk. Why don’t you come talk to us?” a second said.
She chewed on her lip and quickened her pace.
“Oh, this is the worst time for you to be drunk,” she growled at Ahlvie.
Then, she did the only thing she could think. She acted as if she were terrified and ran down the first deserted side street she could find. At least here, she could dump Ahlvie, and there would be no one at her back. Then, she could use her magic without consequence.
She double-checked her surroundings before depositing Ahlvie on the ground where it looked as if he was going to pass out any minute.
“Girlie’s trapped,” one of the men said as they entered the alleyway.
“Nowhere to go.”
Cyrene ignored their taunts and reached for her magic. Without Avoca, it had none of the finesse that she had grown accustomed to. But, alone, she was formidable…in large doses. It was always the smaller bits of magic that she found most difficult. She just couldn’t use so much that she would pass out or kill someone. Because, alone in a dark alley with that much blood, she didn’t trust herself not to harvest the blood magic.
“Why don’t you drop the coin, and we’ll let you walk away?” another one said.
There were five in total. Each one bigger than the next. To most people, this would have been very intimidating.
Fear pricked at her. But not for her. For them. For what she could do to them if she wanted. Make them never intimidate anyone ever again. Make them realize how small and insignificant they truly were.
“I have a better idea,” Cyrene said. “If you leave the alley now, I won’t make you regret ever coming after me.”
Their laugh was a chorus. They didn’t believe her. She was just a small girl.
And, under any other conditions…they’d be right. She was not trained as a warrior. She had no instinctive prowess with a weapon in her hands. She was a lady in a pretty dress and always would be first and foremost. But she could also harness the power of the four elements to bring them to their knees and rip them to shreds with her mind. The duality suited her.
“I did warn you.”
Then, as she was about to call up her powers, a figure exploded from the alley behind her. She was all flying knives, whirling swords, long and powerful limbs, and cascading dark hair. She fought Cyrene’s assailants with a fluidity that was unparalleled. Her movements were like water. Her strike like a snake. Her swords a blur of beautiful, synchronized motion. It was a dance and a song. Choreography that no one else had ever matched.
And Cyrene had watched some incredible fighters. But nothing quite so…striking. There was elegance to it. Grace. She was completely one with herself. Her sword just an extension of her arm.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. The men turned tail and fled in the other direction as fast as their feet could carry them. Limbs sliced open and weapons discarded, they ran from this warrior goddess.
She turned around then and brushed her long hair out of her face.
Cyrene’s mouth dropped open. “Gwynora?”
She whipped her blade in the air and pointed it at Cyrene. “What in the Creator’s name are you doing here? You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“I could have handled them.”
“That wasn’t the question.”
“We were at a tavern. We won some coin, and the thugs came after us.”
Gwynora sheathed her blade with a sneer. “Try to stay out of trouble, okay?”
It was at that point that Ahlvie decided to rouse from whatever drunken stupor he’d fallen into. “Just one more round!”
Gwynora raised her eyebrows. “Is he all right?”
“Actually, he’s quite intoxicated. I have to figure out how to get him back to our inn.”
Gwynora hissed through her teeth. “I know a place nearby that makes a concoction to help sober him up. Then, you and your friends can get out of my city.”
“Thank you,” Cyrene said graciously. Though she had no intention of leaving until they found what they had come here for.
They hoisted Ahlvie up between them and all but carried him the few short blocks to a little herbal apothecary. An old woman cooed over Gwynora and then ushered her to the back.
Cyrene was shocked to find that the back room was actually a massive den. A dozen private rooms formed the perimeter with an area in the center where a group of half-naked men and women smoked from various pipes. Sweet smoke filled the space and made everything look hazy. The woman poured water on a pile of hot coals, and sticky steam wafted up into the closed space.
Sweat dripped down Cyrene’s neck from the intense temperature, but Gwynora seemed unfazed. She gestured to the back private room, and they moved Ahlvie back there.
Cyrene went to pull back the curtain to the room when a man thrust it aside.
“My apologies,” Cyrene said, taking an unsteady step backward.
“No worries, my dear,” the man said with a wink.
Then, Cyrene’s eyes zeroed in on the man. And his hat. With a large red feather in it.
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