He was not an innocent man. He didn’t have to be. It had been half a decade since he had taken law or morality into consideration. Maybe longer. Maybe much longer. It was hard to remember exactly when those hard edges had stopped eating into him, worrying him out of sleep, hedging him in.
“Heads, I win. Tails, you lose. Your choice.” And the girl smiled as she said it, her mouth a charming, crooked line.
In her chair, she relaxed without leaning either forward or back, her spine carelessly straight. Her dark hair was braided loosely down her back and a too-bright scarf held it back from her face. With one elbow propped lazily against the table, she let the silence stretch. And she waited for the unnecessary reply.
Some things looked like knives, but were not knives. Imalie had been carrying one for a decade now, a thin piece of steel that someone had sharpened for a clear purpose, though Imalie had confused it with a thousand others just as soon as she could.
The sharpener, no doubt, had been in perfect agreement with the craftsman who had carved and wrapped the hilt so that it fit easily in a hand and would not slip out of sure fingers. Both of them worked in agreement with the forger, who made the steel into something thin enough to barely need a point, and heavy enough to drive itself through a cut, as if it had some small measure of will all its own.
But it was not a knife. Knives were for slicing, cutting, and stabbing. For breaking, if it came to that. For severing. Imalie had tied all its weight into a sheath and strapped it to her arm under her sleeve, and never taken it out. She had never used it to cut a thing, so now, it was a memory, and a threat, and something which rode just on the edge of her curiosity before she dropped into sleep.
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.
The knife was a long thing, thin, but heavy enough to do half the hand’s work in driving it deep. The hilt was wrapped in leather, the strips molded together by years of oil and use. The blade barely caught a gleam. The cross-guard was so narrow it could only suggest that a hand stay behind it while the sharp edge did the real convincing.
Beitris wouldn’t usually have taken it out to play with it. She had carried it long enough for the weight to have balanced itself into her stride, but she didn’t have any affection for it. It didn’t feel right in her hand, and it didn’t feel wrong. There was some safety in holding it, but no warmth. She might have said she forgot about it most of the time, except for how quickly she could put it into her hand when she needed it.
The most dangerous place in Jaon was the open stone court where the philosophers claimed their favorite seats between the pillars.
Fallon thought that it had once been outside the city limits from the way the streets twisted and knotted to avoid the court. A long time ago, maybe, it had been quiet and inviting for anyone who wanted the space to throw ideas around with hitting passersby. Now, it fought for elbow space with the morning market, while tall buildings leaned as close as they dared from either side. Men and women used the wide, flat paving stones as shortcuts and they were the only things in the city that seemed unaware that this was a place better left alone.
There was no easy dawn that morning, no cool, lingering dark. The sun rose, dug hot, steady fingers into the earth and yanked it around to face it. Danneel woke into too-bright daylight, her blanket already pushed to the side, her mouth sticky after her short hours of sleep.
She had slept like something dead, she realized. There was no other way to account for the way she had lost time, the way daylight had invaded. And that woke her up fast.
Evander was already moving. He knelt on the ground, rolling his small sack of things inside his blanket. They had all gotten used to packing their small pile of things into even smaller packets for easy carrying, but he still gave it all of his attention. He tucked the end of the blanket in itself as if someone might be along to inspect the tightness of the fold, and he tied the rope to either end with careful knots, as if there were no hurry, and nothing else in the world. It bothered Danneel a little – the rest of them had learned to do it so much quicker – but he was also the only one who never made any noise as he walked, or had to stop to repackage his things midday to stop them from clinking.
There was a bloody sword under the bed, kicked there as if a person’s instinct to hide it had only briefly overwhelmed their apathy for getting caught. The mis-matched blankets on the bed fell far enough over the sides to hide it, but the breeze from the window threaded the smell of it out into the open.
Dovev had walked into the room, and felt the wrongness of it before she had settled the door shut again. Inside three shallow breaths, she had found it and pulled it out. Then she sat back on her knees and stared at it, trying to understand who had put it in her room.
It was not her sort of weapon. It was too long, too hard to hide, impossible to slip up a sleeve. She had a knife she always carried with her, long and thin in its own right, but it had always fit in a sheath beneath her knee, and now that she was taller, it lay well between her wrist and elbow. She picked up others as she found them, and threw them away as she needed, but they were rarely bloody, and she would never let them grow a stink like this.
It was easy to spot the city watch. Even on the wrong streets when they chose to hide and leave their uniforms behind, they were obvious. Their collars were always pressed, the seams in their breeches always perfect straight lines to pass inspection. Elodie knew from a friend that the city only provided them with coats and boots, and they simply wore plain clothes shirts and breeches underneath. Lazy as human beings were, she doubted that they bothered to change more than they had to. Either that, or they only owned one pair of pants.
The man and the woman approached Elodie slowly and she decided not to walk away. She had a few things in her pockets that could get her in trouble, but nothing so large that it could be seen through the cloth. Standing against the wall of the old bakery, she had a good view of the rest of the street. She was enjoying the smell of the morning’s loaves cooling on the high windows somewhere over her head, and she didn’t want to give up such a sweet spot.
They continued toward her and stopped when they reached the bakery. The man hung back, leaning against the wall himself, while the woman smiled at her. It was a nice smile, but a little too calculated to erase everything behind it.
“Hey,” the woman said.
Elodie smiled back, and wondered if the woman could recognize the better form of her mask.
When charging into dangerous situations you can either be fast and silent or fast and prepared. It was a simple truth, with a single, large exception which Jasen wasn’t sure why he had never noticed before: if you caused the dangerous situation, you had the foreknowledge to be all three.
He didn’t figure it out until he felt the cool line of a knife leaned against his spine and angled against the muscle of his neck while his sword was still padded in his sheath. He had moved quiet and quick into his hiding place in the far corner of the dim warehouse, but she had been ready for him.
“We told you to stay home,” she murmured, leaning close behind him with one hand firmly on his shoulder so that she could speak into his ear. She didn’t lose the angle on her knife, placed perfectly to slide in and twist so that nothing below his chin ever answered his mind again. It was chilling, even knowing who the voice belonged to.