I slunk through the shallows, hidden by silt and shifting currents until I was close enough to get a clear look at the person on the log. When I did, my lips curled into a smile. I rose out of the river, the water sluicing from my body as if it had given me form. I was water made flesh, painted by Fornern of the Seas, and gilded by the setting sun. A nymph in her element.
Quill, however, watched me appear out of improbably shallow water without even a glimmer of surprise on his face. I walked closer, till I was standing in inches of water only a few feet away from him. He was sitting on the same log I had used earlier. He’d clearly been waiting for me, but he hadn’t been idle. Four knives glittered in the sunlight before him, a fifth and a strop quiet in his hands. His shirt was half open to his bare chest beneath and his hair was damp. Quill returned my inspection; taking in the blue tendrils that covered my legs and torso, then curled savagely up my face and down my arms. He’d never seen this much of my stripes, I realized. Despite my fishing him out of multiple rivers over the years. He’d never seen this much of me. My ears heated and I hated them a bit for reminding me that I was raised on land—and was more culturally human than nymph.
“Are you the search party?” I asked.
Quill glanced at the sky, at the sun that said we’d be late for dinner, then looked at me. “No, but you’ll owe me. When you didn’t come back in five minutes, I thought you might’ve succumbed to the river’s call. I told Druskin I was going to get you and scout the area.” A crooked smile touched his lips, and his eyes flicked over me again. “I’m afraid there’s no hiding we did more than scout.”
I glanced down at my mostly naked, now perfectly clean, blue striped body, and put my hands on my hips. I had not thought through my excursion. But I refused to regret it. “Why is your hair wet?”
“I took a bath while I waited. Thought it might be odd if you came back clean and I didn’t.”
With a groan, I walked the rest of the way out of the water. “There will be talk for sure.”
“There was already talk,” scoffed Quill, then he jerked his chin to the other end of the log where my shirt was laying in the sun, “I tried to wash out our shirts a bit, too. Should be dry by now.” He looked at me again, “I was starting to wonder if you’d come back. But Shiharr and Azzad are here so I wasn’t too terribly worried.”
I smirked, “Of course I came back.”I hopped up on the log with the knives between us and began to squeeze the water out of my hair, trying to decide if I should ask about the “talk” or thank him for washing my shirt.
Before I came to a conclusion, Quill put down the knife and reached behind him, producing another shirt and offering it to me.
Eyeing it, I said, “And if I come back wearing your shirt, no one will think we scouted at all.”
Quill’s smile broadened, “We didn’t scout.”
“That’s not true. I’m now well acquainted with the river bed,” I countered.
“Ah, my mistake. We were both hard at work for hours.” When I still didn’t take the shirt he said, “I couldn’t steal a towel from the Countess without people noticing, but I figured you could use the help drying off.”
“Clever.” I accepted the shirt and patted the water off my arms and legs before starting in again on my hair. The shirt was better than my hands at coaxing water from my dark curls. I felt Quill watching me while he slid the knife along the leather of the strop, but I ignored him. I was too busy confirming that I was, in fact, feeling self-conscious—and trying to remember the last time I had. Living on the road, fighting, hunting, and occasionally thieving for a living I was always either formidable or entirely unnoticed—as the job required—I was good at it. I had worked with all manner of people, bled and fought and bandaged wherever there were wounds…Of course, it’d also been a while since I’d cared what someone thought just because I cared what they thought. It’d been awhile since I’d been around someone who knew the real Zare Caspian. I didn’t dare think about what I wanted his opinion on.
“Where did you get that scar?” Quill’s quiet question brought me back.
I twisted to look at the pale slash on my left forearm. “It’s a long story.”
He paused to pantomime a thrusting blow with the blade.
I grimaced. “Well, that’s certainly the short version.”
“How in Serrifis did someone land a blow like that on you?”
“Because,” I exhaled, the memory rising, “I thought he was my friend.” Maybe more than a friend.
Quill went quiet, but I heard his question.
“Do you remember when Ayglos and I first started taking jobs?”
I took another deep breath. “After the first couple jobs paid the family’s passage to Villaba, and Ayglos and I decided to keep working, we linked up with a hunter named Tadrow Grea in Wimshell. He had connections and jobs…we were extra muscle for him and pretty decent at sneaking and finding information. We hunted criminals and monsters together happily enough for a few months. Then we chased a man too close to the Empire. Tadrow found out about the bounty on my head—and it was worth more to him than I was.” I said the words lightly, as if it hadn’t hurt.
“What happened?” Quill prompted gently.
I looked out at the river; the waves golden in the evening sun. Tadrow Grea had been young, handsome, charming, and competent. I had liked him. A lot. Of course, I’d been seventeen at the time. “He told me my bounty didn’t matter, he told me that he liked me far too well to think of betraying me. We had a few drinks.” A shake of my head, “I let him kiss me goodnight I was so charmed by him. Then he tried to put a knife through my ribs.” I lifted my left forearm to demonstrate the block that had saved my life. Not a move I’d recommend under usual circumstances, but it was that or take the blade somewhere more important. “We fought. I killed him.” A short fight. Decisive. Before I could bleed out.
Quill grimaced in sympathy, packing away the strop and returning his knives to their sheaths. “Was that the first time someone tried to kill you?”
“Not the last.” I hadn’t thought about Tadrow in ages, but the memory still felt raw. A hard lesson well learned. I touched my hair, absently checking the wetness. “We changed how we worked after that. The others I was better prepared for.”
Reaching out, Quill took my hand and brought it to him so he could stroke a finger down the scar on my forearm. A shiver ran through my whole body in response. “I think I’ve heard that story,” he said, voice low, “it made you out to be a terrifying outlaw—murdering allies when they were no longer useful.”
“You didn’t believe that,” I said.
“No,” a smile as he traced the scar again, this time his finger looped through one of the fading blue sworls also. “You know, they tell stories about you as far as the southern tip.”
“Stories of brazen rescues, incredible heists, mixed in with the odd bounty or monster slain on behalf of some helpless village. Some say you command a ghostly army and are only biding your time for revenge on the Empress who cost you everything. Others say you’re a just a vagrant now, who has abandoned your people in favor of ill-gotten gold.”
I quipped, “They are very inconsistent. Bounties and thefts? Seems sort of odd.”
“According to one story, you’ve slain a dragon.”
“That’s the least true thing you’ve heard, I can assure you.” I fluffed my hair with my other hand, then cocked my head. “However do you manage to hear so many stories about me?”
He met my gaze, a guilty twinkle in his eye. “I might ask.”
“Do you add to them?”
I huffed. But laced my fingers through his.
“Zare,” Quill turned serious, “Your bravado…your stories, good and bad…it’s important.”
I swiveled to face him, tucking one leg under me to mimic his position, our hands still clasped. “I know.”
Quill started to smile, then stopped. He blinked, his brow furrowing. I went very still as he stretched out his other hand toward my chest and touched the gold pendant I always wore. Its chain was dulled from never leaving my neck, the pendant hanging well below my collarbone. I felt the heat of his fingers as they brushed my skin. “You still have this.”
“Of course, I do.”
As if he couldn’t stop himself, Quill picked up the pendant and ran his thumb over the three ships stamped into the gold, sailing in an eternal circle of trade. I was conscious of every rise of my chest as he lingered. I stole a glance at his eyes, and they were filled with emotion. The pendant had been a gift from a man we’d both called friend. Whom we’d both been helpless to save when the Empress killed him with her own hand. I wore it to remember. To carry him with me. A talisman. As dear as Shiharr and Azzad.
“He loved Dalyn,” Quill spoke at last, “And believed in you.” He looked at me, then, “We’ll go back one day.”
Something in me chilled at the words. It was an empty promise. “How can you?” bite crept into my tone as anger rose inside me, “When you are bound to the Breaker?”
Quill’s eyes hardened as he said, “Do you think that vows mean nothing?”
“He does.” I spat back, pulling away from Quill’s touch. He let the pendant fall and I hopped off the log, grabbing my shirt from where he’d spread it to dry. This was an old argument. This was why we could only be friends. I was an idiot to forget. I stalked around him to where my clothes and gear were still tucked in the cleft of the tree, snatching them with more force than necessary. “Half the world thinks I’m a selfish coward, but he really is one.”
“You’re not being fair.”
“Am I not?”
“There are things you don’t know.”
“I can’t help that, can I?”
“Zare, give the man some grace—he lost everyone.”
“So did you!” I snapped, yanking on my trousers.
Quill stopped, his mouth opening and then closing again.
“And you were a child!” my voice dropped to a whisper, trembling with the ferocity thrumming through me. “He left. He does not deserve you or your unflagging loyalty.”
“Vows,” replied Quill stiffly, “Are for just such times.”
I pulled my shirt over my head, roughly tucking it in before scooping up my boots and knives. I was too angry to sit next to Quill to put on my shoes so I stormed up the shore to a different log and wished there was a way to impressively shake out socks.
Quill followed me, stopping a few feet away just as I finished putting on the first boot. “By Fornern, don’t you know why we’re here?” he demanded.
“Why should I when you have dodged every time I’ve asked?”
“If Terrimbir and Angareth keep bleeding one another they will be too weak to resist the Empire when it comes marching—even with the Terrim Mountains at their back. But together they have a chance.”
I tugged on my other boot, glaring at him. This, I knew.
Quill scrubbed a hand through his hair, “Someone is trying to stop an alliance from happening, it doesn’t matter who they are, but they must fail. We’re here because Trinh Kegan sent us here specifically to ensure that treaty is made and their wars stop. Because we cannot allow the Empire to get any stronger.”
“Since when does he care?” I muttered, sitting with my boots unlaced before me.
Quill came forward and stopped in front of me, arms crossed, “He cares.”
Standing, I leaned in so I could snarl into Quill’s face, “Like he cared when he left us to cross the continent alone while he went to lick his wounds? Like when he left Hesperide?”
“People change,” replied Quill, leaning close enough that his breath brushed my face, “People grow. And he didn’t leave Hesperide alone.”
I knew that he’d seen that Hess was cared for before riding off. I just didn’t think he should have ridden off. But then again, he wasn’t good company, so maybe it had been a kindness. Even if almost all the fighting men had been sworn to him. I stared into Quill’s face, trying to process Quill’s words and my own anger. Biting back a dozen more nasty comments that I didn’t really want to say to Quill, but to the Breaker. The one who’d lost no more than any of his men, but had decided he was only good at breaking things, at causing death, and undoing. I could admit, Trinh Kegan was good at breaking things. I could even admit that he’d lost more than I had in the wars that made the Empire. I sighed, sagging as the anger began to seep out of me. Finally, I managed, “That’s actually why Trinh sent you? He’s trying to slow down the Empire?”
Quill nodded, his body relaxing as he saw the fire leave me. “Saving the lives of one woman and one male could save the lives of thousands.”
“Why not tell me?”
“Because involving the Galhari wasn’t part of his plan. I brought you in because you are perfect for this job. Also, we haven’t really been alone to talk about it.”
I smiled dryly. “Because we weren’t supposed to see Rakov up close,” I corrected.
That earned a grimace from Quill. “Because my king and yours aren’t on speaking terms.”
That was true.
Quill lifted a hand and brushed his knuckles against my cheek. “Your face looks better. Not much discoloration.”
Quickly, I raised both my hands to my cheeks. They were still a little tender but didn’t feel swollen any longer.
“And I’m sorry he left the Galhari to fend for themselves.”
I let my hands fall, feeling drained now that the anger was gone, “It wasn’t your fault.”
Quill touched my face again, his other hand brushing my forearm where the scar was, the air stretching taut between us. “And I’m sorry I couldn’t go with you.”
If he had, would I have been kissing Tadrow and nearly getting myself killed? If he had, would he still be the honorable, good man I trusted more than anything? I dared to run my hand up his arm, savoring the feel of his strength. “That wasn’t a fault,” I said hoarsely. He’d stayed with his cousin Hesperide and her collection of children for a year before rotating out to work jobs with his king turned breaker while others rested at Hess’s little enclave. He’d been given that, at least, by his useless king.
Quill moved closer, till our bodies were almost touching. Emotions swirled around us like waves around the rocky promontories of Galhara.
“Quilleran?” a shout drifted along the riverbank and Quill’s head snapped up.
We stepped away from one another as I said, “That sounded like Druskin.”
“I suppose we’re done scouting,” said Quill wryly.
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