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.
“Let’s call it early,” Jaxon said.
Sia had been leaning tiredly against her hand, but watching him stand and stretch seemed worth giving him a proper look of disbelief, so she raised her head and stared at him. There was a pile of ledgers between them yet, papers with notes to be put in the official records and contracts to be sorted. The lifting and moving and hammering of the day had been finished half an hour before, along with the last hours of daylight, but there was still hours of work left.
Jaxon glanced at the pile, and then at her. “We both know we’re not getting all this done tonight.”
She waited until the cop passed the lightpost and rounded the corner to step up behind her and put a hand to her throat and a knife to her ribs. It was a stupid way to make friends. Stupid had not been working out well for Nicole lately, but that only meant that her good luck was overdue. From the way the cop shifted in her grip, leaned forward and braced herself tentatively against Nicole’s hand, Nicole’s luck was stuck up a tree somewhere. Or had stopped for a latte.
“This isn’t a good idea,” the cop said calmly.
“This a freaking terrible idea,” Nicole said, just as evenly.
The cop eased back, taking the light pressure off Nicole’s hand immediately.
“I need your help,” Nicole said.
It took three weeks to sail between the islands, though rough weather could turn it into a more interesting five. More interesting, because chill turned to actual cold, and there was nothing boring about being soaked hourly from scalp to heel, and the elegant sweeps that the current usually carved across the ocean’s face were hidden beneath the chopped waves of a storm. The straight shot from port to port turned into a jagged stumble, and the sails pulled twice their usual weight in the lines under the sharp wind. But five weeks on a boat three strides from port to starboard, with a crew of nine and a comfortable capacity of six, was still not the long ocean crossing on a broad ship that Eliah wanted to make.
And at fourteen, he had already made thar crossing forty-four times. He shouldn’t have been keeping count, but it made it easier to brag and complain.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Eliah wandered farther downhill, toward the end of the street. A few roads back, he’d been walking on pavement, but now it had turned to hard packed dirt between the great square warehouses near the water. One street over, it would turn to wooden boardwalk, and then to deep, crystalline water. He was content in the dust for now. The crowds on the piers were always thicker, and while he didn’t have an particular destination, he preferred to make good time.
Up ahead, the road stopped at the base of another of Lesser island’s rolling hills. Other hills rose high as they pleased, but still dropped off into the ocean in the same general line as their lower neighbors. This one held onto its height, leaving a fat ridge of green that curved out into the ocean and shielded the harbor like a bent shield arm.
When the road ended, Eliah paused, and glanced toward the docks, and then clambered up the hill. He really didn’t have anywhere to be.
Zar leaned heavily on the bar and let an edge creep into his smile. The innkeeper hesitated on the other side, almost pulled back.
“I said, my friend forgot to leave me a key,” Zar said. He liked to play with mixing boredom and threat in his tone, and he thought he’d found a potent balance today. “And I need to get into my rooms. Do I look like the kind of man who needs to ask twice?”
He waited while the innkeeper looked over his finely stitched coat, the rings on his fingers, the sheen on his shirt where it was dragged out through the intricate cuts on his sleeves. They fit like a second skin, despite being stolen. Zar did his job well.
Dalia pulled the door shut behind her, heard it click, and immediately let out a heavy breath. She’d locked herself out again. Turning around, she tried the latch twice and shoved hard on the door before she resigned herself to it. Then she dropped her forehead against the heavy wood and held her breath to keep from groaning.
That was the third time in a month. She needed to cultivate better talents.
“You okay?” a girl asked from behind her.
Dalia shut her eyes. The last thing she needed was a witness to this repeated catastrophe.
Gemma stayed to the side, shoulders against the wall and waited. She didn’t move. It wasn’t her favorite thing to do, but it seemed to put everyone else in the room closest to their ease.
When she first came in, introduced herself and caught each of their names, they looked at her like she had just stepped in from the bad side of town. Since they were in the bad side of town, they weren’t wrong, but the look was unnerving. They watched her walk around the room. All three of them listened to every word she said, whether it was pointed to them our not. After a minute, she decided she’d rather have their attention where it mattered – preparing for the job – and she stepped back until she could straighten her spine against a wall. It kept her out from under foot, and easily within sight.