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“YOU’RE CHEATING AGAIN, DAMN YOU,” the drunken man said to the black-haired young woman sitting across from him at the gaming table. He glared at her with bloodshot brown eyes and pounded his fist on the pockmarked wood. “Ain’t nobody has that kind of luck against ol’ Rafe.”

Athaya shrugged her shoulders, and the silver studs embedded in her leather doublet winked in the torchlight. “It isn’t luck. I’m just better at this than you are.”

“HA!” he belted out, punctuating his comment with a gurgled belch. “The day a damned woman half my age beats me at cards is the day I’ll hang myself.” He peeked at the down-turned card in front of him and flipped it over with a triumphant flourish.

“There. A ten and a queen. Beat that if you can.”

His opponent took a look at her own card and tried to hold back a smile. “Get a noose ready,” she said, laying the ace next to the king already faceup on the table. She leaned back in the rickety wooden chair, and her expression was undeniably smug. “That’s another two crowns you owe me. I believe that makes it an even ten.”

The man’s eyes bulged. He got to his feet, wavering slightly, and reached over to snatch the woman’s wrist with a thick-fingered hand as she scooped up the pile of silver coins in the center of the table.

“Not so fast!” he said. “I don’t pay up to anybody who wins by hexing the cards! You hear that?” he shouted to the other patrons in the dingy little tavern. “She’s cheating me!” One or two grizzled heads looked up in mild annoyance from their games at the other tables crowding the cramped, smoke-filled room, but none of them seemed overly interested in the drunken man’s accusations against his young opponent.

“Get your filthy hands off me,” Athaya said through clenched teeth, glaring intensely at the grimy fingers curled around her wrist, “or this will be the last game of cards you ever play.”

For a moment, she thought the threat might work. Rafe stared at her incredulously, blinking several times as if attempting to make his eyes focus clearly. But then a gap-ridden smile slowly formed about his stubbly, unshaved chin. His laughter began as a series of wheezy giggles, soon expanding into loud, hearty guffaws. Gleefully, he slapped his thigh with his free hand.

“Feisty little devil, ain’t you?” he said, twisting the skin of her arm until she winced from the burn. “I like that in a woman.”

He yanked her roughly out of her chair, sending it toppling sideways onto the soiled rushes scattered across the floor. Moving quicker than Athaya thought a man of his bulk could, he reached for the dagger on her belt and snatched it away before she could grab it. He pulled her close to him, the blade poised near her slender white throat, and she felt her muscles tense beneath his grip. With one quick motion, he scanned her body from head to toe, openly admiring the firm curves hidden inside the snug-fitting wool breeches and steel-studded doublet.

“I don’t like it when people cheat me,” he said, drawing his face closer to hers. The smell of stale beer on his breath made Athaya grimace. “But you’re much too pretty to punish. What’s say we make a bargain? I’ll forget about the game if you apologize to me real nice.”

He cocked his head in the direction of the narrow flight of stairs which huddled against the back wall of the tavern and slunk upward through the shadows toward the upper floor. “Understand?”

Athaya’s eyes flickered nervously toward the back of the inn. There could be little doubt as to his intentions. The only thing upstairs was a row of tiny rooms sparsely furnished with bug-infested cots and thin, moth-eaten curtains for doors—the working place of the tavern’s whores.

She held her jaw firm, trying to appear far less worried than she was. When she had decided to go out into the city tonight, she hadn’t exactly pictured the evening ending like this. Just a few drinks, that’s all she’d wanted. A few drinks, and the chance to spend some time away from home.

“Uh, look—if you’re mad about the money, then just keep it, all right?” she offered, earnestly hoping that the little pile of silver would be enough to satisfy him. “Keep all of it.”

“I’m goin’ to,” he said, leering. “But you’re still gonna make it up to me.” He tightened his grip on her arm, forcing her to bite her lip to keep from wincing. “So what do you say, love? It’s a sight better than me slicing your throat, which is what usually happens to people who cheat me.”

“But I swear to you I wasn’t—”

“Shut up and come on,” he growled impatiently as he yanked her away. He pushed her toward the staircase, following directly behind her as she mounted the well-worn steps. Athaya felt the tip of her own blade digging into her back.

With increasing desperation, she glanced back at the other patrons in the tavern, calmly guzzling their ale and continuing with their games. Somehow she had expected that a few enthusiastic volunteers would have come to her rescue by now, but even the serving girl, weaving between the tables and refilling goblets from a wooden pitcher, did not seem unduly alarmed by Athaya’s situation. Athaya doubted if more than a handful of the dozens of people crowded into the tavern were even aware of what was going on, and not one of that handful looked the least inclined to do anything about it.

“Hurry along, now,” Rafe said, giving her a rough shove. She stumbled against the wooden railing and bit back a curse as she recovered her balance and continued.

When they reached the top of the stairs, Rafe gestured toward one of the small rooms just across the hallway. The tattered door curtains were pulled back, showing the room to be unoccupied. Athaya was sickened by the sight of the soiled cot lying near a puddle on the bare wood floor, certain that there were far more lice than straw inside the thin mattress. The floor was spotted with dried mud, tracked in by the last visitors to this room, and a squat, yellow candle sat in a tin cup on the floor, shedding a sickly glow on the scarred, soot-smeared walls.

“Inside,” came Rafe’s voice in her ear. Athaya could not tell whether his slurred words came from the beer he’d consumed or from eagerly contemplating the events to come.

Athaya turned around slowly, favoring him with a sultry, seductive look. She couldn’t fight past him, but maybe there was another way out of this. Dropping her chin, she tossed her head and allowed her elbow-length hair to fall gracefully around her shoulders. Rafe held the dagger loosely now, lowering the blade slightly as if no longer convinced he’d need to use it. She took a step forward, glancing only momentarily behind him toward the common room below, and rested her hand on his shoulder. Running her tongue slowly over her lips, Athaya pressed her chest brazenly against his, immediately conscious of the firm bulge which strained against his breeches.

I think I’m going to be ill, she thought sullenly, still careful to sustain the look of pleasure on her face. How do I get myself into these things, anyway?

“Kiss me,” she said, in a low, hushed voice. Tensing her muscles, she steeled herself as he bent over her, trying not to turn away from the stench of rancid ale on his breath. He reached out slowly and dug a greedy, jagged-nailed hand into her hair.

With an ear-piercing cry, Rafe suddenly doubled over, clutching his groin in furious agony. Athaya grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him backward, sending him tumbling noisily down the staircase toward the common room. The dagger flew from his hand and clattered to the ground at her feet. Seconds later, Rafe was curled into a pitiful little ball at the foot of the staircase, moaning and rocking from side to side with his face twisted in pain.

The success of the blow took her off guard—she hadn’t expected it to work quite that well. Rafe was easily twice her weight, and she hadn’t hit him very hard. Still, she was infinitely grateful that her brother Nicolas had taught her such an effective technique for fending off unwanted advances, even though she had never expected to use that particular bit of knowledge. She would have to remember to tell him how well his lessons paid off.

Quickly collecting her wits, Athaya snatched up the dagger and bounded down the steps two at a time. She straddled Rafe and crouched down to pin him to the floor with the weight of her body. The silver blade of her dagger flashed in the dim torchlight as it found a resting place on the sticky flesh of his neck.

“I’d rather sleep with a mind-plagued wizard.” Her voice was low and fluid and gently threatening. She stood up cautiously, keeping the dagger close to his throat, and watched as he tried, without success, to hide the pain inflicted by her well-placed knee.

If you weren’t so drunk, you’d feel twice as bad, Athaya thought, looking down at him in disgust. His face had a sickly green cast to it, and he looked as if he were just about to retch. He rose gingerly to his feet, his hands clutched between his legs. Still pale and shaken, he slowly staggered across the room. Roughly shoving aside a startled young man who had been watching the proceedings from the doorway, Rafe stumbled out into the street, muttering curses under his breath.

Athaya walked back to the gaming table they had so recently deserted and counted out the silver coins. Replacing the dagger in its sheath, she rummaged impatiently through the tattered deerskin pouch tied to her belt and drew out a long, slender looca-pipe made of polished cherrywood. She lit the bluish tobacco from the candle on the table and stuffed the tip of the pipe between her lips, drawing a deep breath of the soothing, sweet-smelling smoke.

Realizing that her cup was almost empty, Athaya signaled for the tavern owner’s young daughter and ordered another bottle of wine. The round-faced serving girl, her apron streaked with grime and soot, bobbed a clumsy curtsy and scurried away through the rotted oak door that led to the tavern’s kitchens. She returned in an instant with a flagon of rich red wine. In exchange for the flagon, Athaya fished a coin out of her pocket and handed it to her.

“Keep the rest,” Athaya said softly.

“Oh! Thanks kindly, ma’am!” the girl squealed, her eyes wide. She caressed the coin as if it were made of silk, curtsied again, this time more gracefully, and hurried away to show the prize to her father.

Athaya filled her goblet and sank back in her chair, lazily shuffling the cards with half-closed eyes and flipping them onto the table in a halfhearted game of solitaire. She sighed despondently, glancing around the smoky room at the drunken sots hunched over their tables, and contemplated whether or not to go home.

Ugh, that’s worse than this place, she thought with a shudder and resumed her game of solitaire.

She took another puff from her looca-pipe, filling her lungs with the calming smoke and trying to erase all memories of Rafe from her mind. Although her experience was not that wide, Rafe’s attack only increased her suspicions that the majority of men did most of their thinking with an organ located a good distance from the brain. She had met precious few men in her life who were sincerely good, without being obsessed by their prowess either on the battlefield or in their beds. Offhand, Athaya could think of only two truly good men—her brother Nicolas, and Tyler.

Tyler. Athaya smiled at the very thought of him. With a twinge of shame, she realized she ought to have told him she was going out tonight. But what difference would that have made? He would have told her not to go, she would have gone anyway, and in that event, she would now be feeling even more guilty than she already did. And besides, after this game she would head for home, and he would see for himself that there was nothing to worry about.

Athaya held back a yawn. It was late, the smoke from the pipe stung her eyes and numbed her thoughts, and she had drunk enough wine to make her sleepy.

Then a shadow fell across the cards, and in the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of white linen as someone settled into the chair that her earlier opponent had vacated. Athaya looked up, recognizing the young man whom Rafe had shoved aside during his humiliating exit.

“Every time Rafe loses a game, he thinks somebody’s hexing the cards,” he said lightly. His voice was tinged with a faint, unfamiliar accent.

The man looked a few years older than she—twenty-five, perhaps—and was by far the best-dressed man in the tavern. His deep blue doublet and crisp white shirt stood out from the sea of brown and black wool covering the backs of the other tavern patrons, most of them local farmers, miners, and tradesmen. A soft-crowned felt cap was cocked to one side on a head of straw-like blond hair, giving him a carefree, innocent air like that of a traveling minstrel, and his hands were smooth and soft, as if more accustomed to a harp than a plough. But despite his friendly brown eyes and engaging smile, Athaya offered no greeting. If this man claimed friendship with someone like Rafe, then she wanted nothing to do with him.

“Were you?” he asked, leaning forward on his elbows.

Athaya frowned. “Was I what?”

“Hexing the cards.”

Her eyes flashed, and she flung her cards down angrily. “Please! I’ve been insulted enough for one night.”

She took a deep drink of her wine and puffed on her pipe a few times. Somewhat mollified by the numbing effect of both, she added, “Besides, there’s only one plague-ridden wizard in Caithe that I know of, and he’s up at Delfar Castle.”

The young man balked for a moment, then looked at her with surprised confusion. “Sorry, I didn’t mean any offense.” Then, assuming it would explain everything, he added, “I’m not from around here.”

“Congratulations,” Athaya said dryly. She’d intended the remark to be sarcastic, but the moment the word was uttered, she was surprised at how much truth it contained. Given the choice, she would have left Delfarham long ago. There were better places on the Continent than the congested and squalid capital city of Caithe. There had to be, she added inwardly.

Her new companion scooped up the cards from the table and began shuffling them, gazing at them intently as he turned them over in his fingers. “Well, they’re not marked,” he said, setting them back down again. “I guess Rafe was just the victim of a run of good luck.” He chuckled to himself. “But don’t bother trying to convince him that you were playing an honest game. He’s an awfully sore loser.”

Athaya furrowed her brows. “If you’re not from around here, how come you know all about this fellow Rafe?”

She gave him an icy stare, tapping her fingernails on the tabletop and watching his composure begin to melt under her gaze. The young man squirmed in his seat. His eyes flickered toward the staircase, and Athaya knew, with queer satisfaction, that he was thinking of what she’d done to the last man who’d crossed her.

“I’ve only been in Caithe for a few days,” he explained quickly. “I’m a messenger—from Reyka,” he added, with a touch of pride. “I came in here for a drink this afternoon after I delivered my letters and won a few crowns dicing with Rafe. That’s how I know he’s a sore loser. Swore I was cheating, and when he heard I was from Reyka, he accused me of putting spells on the dice and called me a mind-plagued wizard.”

Athaya laughed softly, regarding her naive companion with a smile. “I hope you realize how much of an insult that is around here,” she commented.

He stared at her blankly, and Athaya laughed again. Obviously the young messenger had never been to Caithe before. “Well, never mind that now,” she said, picking up the bottle of wine and swirling the contents around. “Care for some?”

He leaned over and plucked an empty goblet from the next table. “Thanks. And by the way, the name’s Jaren. Jaren McLaud.”

“Cheers, Jaren,” she said, and they clicked the rims of the pewter goblets together and drank.

They sat together for close to an hour, and Jaren watched Athaya begin another game of solitaire, being unwilling, as he said, to challenge such an obviously superior cardplayer and surely lose whatever money he had. Instead, he chatted away on a variety of topics, balancing her relatively pensive and sullen mood. He told her about his journey from Reyka, how terrible the roads were and how repulsive the inns, and filled her in on the latest court gossip from the Reykan capital of Ath Luaine.

“Osfonin was fairly upset, of course,” he said, speaking of the Reykan king. “He never expected his son to return home so dead set against marrying the Caithan princess. Apparently she wasn’t quite what he’d been led to believe. Surprising, since Prince Felgin isn’t known for being all that particular about his women.” Jaren laughed to himself as if aware of some private joke and drained the last of his wine.

“I mean no insult to your noble king or his fair daughter,” he added hastily. “I only repeat what I’ve heard in my travels. But it is well known that Kelwyn has been seeking a husband for his youngest child for quite some time and is… er, having difficulties selecting the right one.”

“That’s a diplomatic way of putting it,” Athaya observed, suppressing a smile. Everyone in Caithe knew about Kelwyn’s plight. His futile efforts to find a match for his only daughter had been a source of jokes throughout the kingdom for nearly five years.

“Unfortunately, there are those less kind,” Jaren replied with a sigh. “Some of the other people I’ve spoken to here in Caithe say that whoever the lucky bridegroom turns out to be, he’ll want twice the dowry just to take the princess off Kelwyn’s hands.”

“And has your Prince Felgin found himself another bride?” Athaya asked distractedly. Conversations that consisted mainly of court gossip tended to bore her rapidly.

“No. But now there is talk of a southern alliance with Cruachi, so Osfonin may send his son to that godforsaken desert to meet the emir’s daughters. Lord, I think he’s got over twelve.”

Jaren rattled on for another few minutes about the Cruachis, making lighthearted fun of their ornate manner of dress and complimenting their widely known talent for breeding swift, strong horses. But soon his lively chattering trailed off. As he sat across from her, now strangely silent, Athaya sensed that he was engaged in some sort of internal monologue, as if trying to decide on a subject of conversation that was likely to interest her more than the dealings of the Reykans or the Cruachis. Twice he looked as if he were about to say something and twice he thought better of it and merely smiled at her like a tongue-tied suitor. Athaya found such unexpected speechlessness odd in one who had approached her so boldly, but she thought nothing more of it. In fact, she found it somewhat refreshing.

“I take it from what you said earlier that you don’t like it around here very much,” Jaren said finally. His tone was casual, but Athaya detected a hint of purpose behind his words. “When I said I was only a visitor here, you seemed to think I was fortunate.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied with a shrug. “Delfarham’s probably the same as everyplace else.”

“If you’re bored here, why don’t you leave? Travel somewhere. See the world.”

Athaya shook her head resolutely. “Impossible.”

“What—no money? You’d be surprised how far you can go on just a few crowns. And if you’re really that good at the gaming tables, you could hustle your way to the far side of the Continent and back with your winnings.”

“It’s not the money,” she said, laughing softly at Jaren’s unrepressed exuberance. “And it’s not that I wouldn’t like to get away from home for a while. But my family would never allow it.”

“Why not? For heaven’s sake, you’re what—nineteen? Twenty? High time for you to see a bit of the world. Reyka, for instance,” he added. It was barely noticeable, but Athaya thought she detected an increasing lack of nonchalance in his voice. “Not many Caithans come to Reyka anymore. Oh, I’ve met one or two, but no more. And that surprises me. It’s beautiful country. To the west are glorious sand dunes bordering the sea—and the forests! The white pines are as tall as the highest cathedral spire in Reyka. The land’s a bit wilder than yours here—the crags make it seem so, anyway, and there’s always a touch of silver in the sky, whether it be blue or gray.”

“Sounds very nice,” she said, feeling obliged to say something. But Jaren had obviously not heard the flatness in her voice, and thinking she was more interested than she was, jumped at her words as a hint to go on. He spoke with enthusiasm, and Athaya was beginning to think he possessed a bit too much of it for a relatively mundane topic.

“The capital is farther north than Delfarham, and autumn comes early there,” he went on. “In fact, the leaves are probably starting to turn even though it’s not September yet. Yes, I’ll be glad to get back in time to see the color.”

He paused for an instant, and Athaya sensed that he was about to give her some sort of explanation for this florid description of his homeland.

“Listen,” he said, dropping his voice down low. “I’m going back home in a few days…”

He paused again, choosing his next words carefully, but Athaya didn’t need to hear them. She should have seen through his motives before, but the looca-smoke and wine must have dulled her senses too much. With a slow dawn of realization, she leaned back in her chair and scowled at him. So that’s what he’s been getting at…

Jaren smiled innocently. “Why don’t you—”

Suddenly filled with rage, Athaya swept her hand across the table, sending the cards fluttering to the floor like dead leaves. “Look, Jaren,” she said, pointing a finger in his face, “I’ve had just about enough lewd propositions from men for one night. You’ll have to find some other woman willing to be your bedmate on your way back home.”

“B-but that’s not what I meant!” he stammered, both surprised and hurt by her accusation. “Not at all!”

Athaya wasn’t listening. Gathering up her looca-pipe, she stalked away from the table, thoroughly disgusted. She had been insulted once too often and decided to head for home. There, at least, the insults were not quite so degrading.

“Wait! Please come back,” Jaren was saying, hurrying up behind her. “I didn’t mean what you think. Let me explain—”

Athaya was just about to step over the threshold when she collided with two large men blocking the doorway, one of whom promptly plucked the dagger from her belt. The men were dressed in drab wool tunics and hose, liberally stained with mud, and had lightweight black cloaks flung carelessly over their shoulders. Athaya’s nose wrinkled at the stench of the dried manure that clung to the sides of their leather boots. The taller of the two admired the fine workmanship of her dagger with dark, greedy eyes that looked smaller than they were next to the huge, sharply curved nose that jutted from his face like a beak. The other man was more muscular, with two scraggly mops of gray hair on each side of his balding head, and looked as if he would snap the laces of his tunic, so tightly did it cling to his frame.

“Do you mind?” Athaya asked sourly, resting one hand on her hip. She held out her hand, silently requesting the return of her blade.

The taller man smiled and handed the dagger to his burly companion, who slid it securely inside his boot.

“Are you the young lady who was playing cards with Rafe earlier?” he said, clasping a pair of callused hands together behind his back.

Athaya could feel her face grow hot. Oh, not again, she groaned inwardly. “So what if I am?” she replied, trying to inject some confidence into her voice.

The larger man moved to one side and leaned against one of the pockmarked tables, while his tall, beak-nosed companion took a step forward and set a hand on Jaren’s shoulder. He gave the slightly built messenger a condescending look.

“I think you’d better leave,” he suggested. “My friend and I have some business to discuss with this young woman.”

“Now look, er—gentlemen,” Jaren began. The corner of his mouth twitched slightly as he glanced at the burly man at his side, easily half again his weight. “Why don’t we sit down and discuss this calmly, and I’m sure we—”

The tall man snapped his wrist to one side, and a thin stiletto suddenly appeared in his palm. “Are you going, or do I have to help you to the door?”

Jaren stood motionless for several heartbeats and exchanged a worried glance with Athaya. Then, with lightning speed, he grabbed the man’s wrist and pushed him back, trying to wrest the blade from his hand. In the corner of her eye, Athaya saw the other man snatch up a heavy wooden pitcher from the table, but before she knew what was happening, he swung it full force at the back of Jaren’s head. The blow was well aimed, and Jaren had not seen it coming in time to duck out of the way. Reeling, he let out a low moan and crumpled to the floor. A thin stream of blood seeped from the wound and trickled down his neck, staining the collar of his shirt bright red.

You’ll have one hell of a bump on your head when you wake up, Athaya thought. But in light of Jaren’s recent proposition, she couldn’t offer any more sympathy than that. At the moment, she was busy enough worrying about herself.

Suddenly she felt a thick arm snap around her throat like a vise, lifting her feet off the floor and dragging her back. The heavyset man threw her against the wall, and her head struck the hard oak with a sickly crack. She was dizzy; her eyes refused to focus, and the peasants in the tavern, now showing more interest in her predicament than they had earlier in the evening, were nothing but blurred images swimming in midair. Her attacker struck her across the face and his cheap bronze ring bit deeply into her cheek.

“That’s for my friend, Rafe,” he growled. “Nobody goes around makin’ a fool of him. You hear that?”

He shook her roughly by the shoulder, banging her throbbing head into the wall again. Already unsteady from the wine, Athaya was limp in his arms, unable to see or think clearly enough to put up a decent fight. The burly man dug his fingers deep into the flesh of her arms, and she bit her lip, trying not to give him the satisfaction of hearing her cry out. Through her hazy vision, Athaya saw his accomplice poke Jaren with the toe of his boot a few times to satisfy himself that the Reykan courier would cause no further trouble, and then he came toward her with cool resolve, ready to inflict a few of his own punishments.

He stepped in front of her, motioning his friend to stand aside. “You really should be more careful who you cheat at cards,” he told her, narrowing his eyes menacingly. “You could get hurt… or worse.”

He reached around and grabbed a handful of hair, slick with blood from where her skull had struck the wall, and Athaya bit back a cry of pain as he flung her to one side, sending her careening toward an empty table. She stumbled into it, knocking it on its side, and sending empty cups flying. The edge of the table jutted into her ribs, and she gasped desperately for breath as she hit the floor. The stink of soiled rushes tortured her nostrils, and she rolled to one side, wishing that she could simply pass out and save herself any more agony. Her head throbbed worse than ever, she felt as if she would be sick, her eyes watered from the smoky air, and she cursed herself inwardly over and over again for ever being so stupid as to drink enough to make her lose her quick reflexes and become so vulnerable to attack.

“Hey, I don’t want no fights in my place!” boomed a low, baritone voice. The owner of the tavern ran out from the kitchens, throwing his greasy apron aside and snatching up a heavy earthenware pitcher from one of the tables. He raised it over his head, prepared to throw it at the next person who moved.

“Get the hell out of here,” he yelled to Rafe’s friends. He pointed toward the door. “You ain’t welcome here. Get out!”

A drunken old woman let out a witchlike cackle of laughter from the back of the room. “You tell ’em, Oren! Throw them bastards out!”

A low buzz of conversation rippled throughout the room. Fingers pointed toward the commotion, and one robust-looking man—a blacksmith, judging from the tiny iron shavings clinging to his soot-smeared smock—got to his feet.

“You heard him,” he said. “Get out.” The three other men at his table stood up at his side, and they made an intimidating quartet.

Rafe’s friends were merely amused by this display. “I’m afraid we haven’t finished our discussion here yet,” the tall man said. He glanced down at Athaya, who lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, clutching her head. “This is none of your concern.”

“Oh, it ain’t? Oren’s my friend and he just told you to get out. And you’re still here.” He pushed his thin woolen sleeves up to reveal the firm muscles of one long-accustomed to using a blacksmith’s hammer. “It looks as if me and my friends here are going to have to show you the way out.”

In an instant, the common room erupted into a wild brawl. The blacksmith and his friends pounced on Athaya’s attackers, and soon every man who’d had just enough to drink to be eager to fight joined in the fray. Athaya briefly caught a glimpse of Oren, the tavern owner, rolling his eyes in resignation as he headed back toward the kitchens. He was obviously used to this sort of thing.

The noise was deafening. Men shouted as they threw their punches, women screamed in high-pitched voices for whichever side they favored, and every so often Athaya heard the crack of wood as chairs were hurled across the room and broken to bits. Athaya crawled behind an upturned table for shelter, protected from the flying bits of wood but unshielded from the pitcher that toppled off another table nearby and spattered her clothes with cheap wine. Dazed, Athaya shook her head, trying to clear her vision despite the dull pounding between her ears. She didn’t know which felt worse, the noise that made her head split open with pain or the increasingly nauseous feeling in her stomach.

Poking her head around the edge of the table, she noticed that the room was more crowded than it had been a moment ago. Near the tavern’s doorway she saw a handful of men—all dressed identically—trying to break up the fight. The newcomers wore the uniforms of the King’s Guard. Over their shirts of chain mail they wore deep crimson surcoats adorned with King Kelwyn’s coat of arms, and heavy brass clasps held thick black cloaks around their necks. The guardsmen whipped out their swords, and the gleaming steel made a convincing argument for putting a stop to the fight. One of the guards bent over Jaren—still lying in an unconscious heap near the door—and nudged him with the tip of his blade, but once he saw that the young man wasn’t posing much of a threat, the guard walked away to subdue the more lively troublemakers.

Four of the guardsmen hauled away the two men who had attacked Athaya—no doubt directing them to the town gaol—and two other uniformed men calmed the tempers of the blacksmith and his friends and saw that they went back to the more harmless pursuits of drinking and gambling away their meager earnings.

Standing in the center of the room, the captain of the guardsmen surveyed the place with a clearly agitated expression. Pulling off his gloves, he ran his fingers through a crop of golden hair, paying little mind to the rest of his men as they went about their duty. His sword hung casually from his belt as his eyes darted around the room, and a worried frown creased his forehead, forming dark lines on the deeply tanned skin. He exchanged a brief word with the tavern owner, who had recently emerged from his hiding place in the kitchens to survey the damage to his shop, and the owner promptly pointed an accusing finger in Athaya’s direction.

The captain looked down at her, huddled on the floor near the upturned table. Closing his eyes, he slapped a hand over them in a gesture of futility. He handed the tavern owner a few coins for his troubles and then crossed the room in five swift strides. He bent over her, stretching out his hand, and Athaya accepted it with a scowl and grudgingly let him pull her to her feet.

“Thanks, Tyler,” she mumbled, allowing herself to be led to a three-legged stool in the corner. She walked unsteadily, reeling with dizziness. She sank down onto the stool, rubbing the lump on the back of her head where it had struck the wall. Coughing, she wiped the sticky blood on the front of her breeches and began picking thin slivers of wood from her hair.

The captain hooked his thumbs in his belt and shook his head in resignation. He was openly displeased, but Athaya could tell by the tilt of his brow that his anger was offset by sincere concern and profound relief that she was safe.

“What have I told you about this place, Athaya?” he scolded, but his voice had little anger in it. Letting out a thin sigh, he picked up a rag from the floor, soaked the edge of it in wine, then knelt down in front of her and began wiping off a thin trickle of blood from her forehead.

“Ouch! Stop it, Tyler!” Athaya snapped, wincing from the sting. She swatted his hand away. “Leave it alone.”

“Stop being such a baby and hold still.” Cupping her chin in his palm, he held the rag against her forehead until the bleeding stopped. Satisfied that it was only a minor cut, he tossed the rag aside and turned his attention to the bump on her head. It was bound to look worse than it was—head wounds usually did—but he seemed reasonably convinced that she was all right. His touch was gentle; even though her cuts still stung, she couldn’t help but smile at the contrast between his careful ministrations and the imposing figure he cut clad in his soldier’s uniform bedecked with chains of rank, and carrying a deadly weapon on his belt. She alone knew the inner man behind the array of intimidating adornments, and that secret knowledge made her eyes shine.

Tyler glanced disparagingly at the jagged tear in the sleeve of her shirt and the streaks of blood on both knees of her borrowed breeches. Conscious of his gaze, Athaya absently tried to wipe the smudges from her face, but her hands were just as dirty, so it did little good.

Getting to his feet, Tyler held out his arm and gestured toward the door. “Come on, let’s get you home and cleaned up.”

Athaya glared at him, her blue eyes narrow and threatening under the thick, black lashes. “What for?” she asked warily.

The captain looked away, checking to see if all of his men had returned, and obviously trying to delay giving her the bad news as long as he could. Athaya cleared her throat noisily, and when Tyler turned back and saw her commanding glare, he gave her the message he’d been ordered to deliver.

“Your father wants to see you right away.”

Athaya groaned and cradled her aching head in her palms. “Damn it all,” she said, “that’s just what I need to cap off an absolutely hellish day.” She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, desperately wishing that when she opened them again, she would be a different person in a different place—and definitely one who did not feel so queasy.

Tyler helped her up and gently laid his thick, woolen cloak around her shoulders, seeing that once again she’d neglected to bring her own. She wished he would keep his arm around her, knowing how much safer she felt when he held her, but knew he did not dare do so in such a public place. But he must have been thinking the same thing, for Athaya felt his hand linger on her shoulder just a moment longer than it should have, and caught a glimpse of sadness in his eyes—a sadness that was often there of late.

“I think you ought to know…” he ventured, dropping his voice down to a whisper. “Your father is really angry this time.”

Athaya let out a sharp, humorless laugh. “So what else is new?”

“Don’t push him too far, Athaya,” he cautioned her, knowing full well that she would do just that unless specifically warned not to. “I mean it. Not tonight.”

She nodded slightly. She wasn’t too drunk to realize he was serious and she didn’t want to disappoint him. He was only trying to protect her, and that was something—for whatever inexplicable reason—that she was becoming increasingly unable to do herself.

“I’ll be careful.”

Athaya followed him out of the tavern and into the warm summer night. The air was still and heavy and not much cooler than it had been earlier in the day. A waxing moon shone like a large, bright pearl among the tiny, glittering stars; in the distance, at the end of the main road, was the silhouette of Delfar Castle, quietly overlooking the calm sea waters. The moonlight gleamed on the lime-washed fortress, making the stones look like molten silver. Only a handful of lights still burned in the towers at this late hour, the faint glow winking in the night like the stars above them. On any other evening, Athaya would have found the sight quite beautiful, but tonight she walked steadily forward, her hands clasped over her stomach, and her eyes focused on the ground as if she were afraid it would drop out from under her the moment she stopped looking. The cobblestones seemed to float beneath her feet, and the shops on either side of the street pitched and swayed as she passed by.

After they had gone only a few yards, Athaya’s footsteps halted abruptly.

“Tyler?” she said, her voice barely audible.


She laid a hand on his shoulder. “Wait here.”

In a few quick strides, Athaya hurried into a dark, litter-filled alley, clasping one hand over her mouth. Tyler started to go after her, but soon he heard the dry, heaving sound of her retching and decided that the princess would much rather be left alone.

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