A hand locked around Heydi’s wrist, really locked, with the fingers hooked over her narrow wrist bones and thumb perfectly set in the groove between her hand and her arm. It hurt a little, but the first thing she did was stare at it.
She was very sure that the guards had not seen her, and very sure that this was not any of the five women and four men that she had just robbed of their purses. She didn’t know who it was, or why they cared.
She started to tilt her head back – all the way back – to get a look at his face. Then she realized it didn’t matter who it was, or why he had grabbed her. It hurt, and no one friendly would hurt her.
Heydi let her feet drop out from under her, twisting her whole body around her arm, twisting herself toward his thumb. Jerdan had taught her to do it, to hang all her weight off her arm, and practiced with her until she knew the exact instant that the man’s hold would break. She was too small to break it any other way.
She felt the pop of his thumb losing its hold, and the sharp slide of the rest of his fingers coming free. The man swore. She was already catching herself on her toes and running in the other direction.
Caled liked Heydi, the same way he liked any of the kids that turned up under his roof. She was young, maybe six and short for that, but she’d already lost the uncertain weight that most kids carried in their hands and feet. Her hair was dark, her skin was a sun-turned bronze, and she looked as if she had been shaved out of a shadow.
Jerdan brought her in, took her straight into Caled’s office. Her head stopped a little higher than the boy’s elbow, and she stayed behind him, not to hide, just following him smoothly, turning when he turned, stopping when he stopped.
Jerdan glanced back at her, nodding when he found her waiting just inside the door. Looking to Caled behind the desk, he met his eye questioningly. The fact that she was with him was the most eloquent recommendation Jerdan could offer. He knew he couldn’t say anything more.
“What is she?” Caled asked.
Jerdan shrugged. “Nothing. Yet.” His mouth tilted into a smile. “But she could be a sneak.”
A long time ago, Caled thought it would be the joy of a lifetime to watch the two best swordsmen in the world clash together. There was beauty in a blade. There was grace in the way it flowed into an arm that knew how to carry it, one limb that spun faster than bone should, fell sharper than flesh ought to. It was the perfect weave of power and skill and elegance. It was a dance that he couldn’t look away from, caught on the knowledge that the ending might literally steal a breath away.
Caled had touched enough blades in his life, spun them through fingers that understood the metal as firmly as a child understood his imaginary friend. He fought enough times to know the feel of a cut, the rush of the run to give one faster than he received it. He knew what it should look like.
And then he saw it.
It wasn’t a dance. It was an instant. It was a moment, spun together not in a braid, but a single, tiny knot. If he’d blinked at the wrong moment, he would have missed it. It was only three steps forward, one long stride to meet it, and one man bowing over a blade that had already been pulled out again. His fall to his knees took longer than the fight did.
Danneel looked down at the knife in her hands and the long, thin blade made her stomach twist. She could feel Caled watching her from behind his desk, watching her hands shake as she tried to measure the thing in her hands. Her fingers slid on the blade. It was sharp enough to cut her without effort. She didn’t think she would even feel the metal, just warm blood. Her stomach tightened again.
“I can’t,” she said. It wasn’t even a whisper. She wasn’t sure he would hear her, but he shifted in his seat so quickly, she knew he had.
“Are you scared?” he asked.
She clenched her jaw, wanting more than anything to clean the quakes out of her skin. “Yes,” she said. The word hissed in the air. “What if he wakes up?”
Caled leaned back. Looking up, Danneel expected him to say something. His silence stung, and he just shook his head.
“Heydi!” he called.