"It’s dusk,” Garret said, though there were no bells in the forest, and it had grown dark some time ago. Only once in my life did the Church of Light’s mathemelodians fail to ring the five beats in the melody of time on the church tower bells, which had only added to the ensuing panic in the city. It was a relief to know someone in our Hand was capable of keeping track of the Brightdaughter without them. “We should stop and make camp. Sentyx, gather some firewood.” The ranger strung his bow and ran off into the woods.

The Skardwarf nodded. Its heavy footsteps lingered long after the two of them disappeared into the gloom of the trees, leaving me with the Paceeqi brother and sister. I was glad someone in our Hand knew how to survive outside the city. South and west of the capital, dense forests sprawled across Lawiko. Apart from these woods and the Fertile Arm running along the country’s eastern flank, the rocky, mountainous terrain made travel by land treacherous. But no ship would take us to Leppit, not through the Outrush Canyon with its unpredictable winds. The canyon used to be the primary route for traders seeking the Market District. Now, all but the most daring paid the Empire’s toll in the Canako Canal beyond the highlands north of Liwokin. A safer route to be sure, but the Empress was likely only concerned with financing important projects, such as a bigger garden in which to take her half-noon tea.

Lorelay plucked a soft, slow melody on her instrument—a lyre, she told me it was called—and the music put me at ease, though I hadn’t realized I’d been holding any tension until now. I didn’t fear the dark, but the city always had some flickering source of light; here, I couldn’t even see the stars, shrouded as they were by the thick canopy of trees.

“Stop that,” Dunnax growled, as he unfurled the bedroll from his pack. “There could be bandits out there. They’ll kill us while we sleep.”

“No bandit’s going to sneak up on us,” Lorelay said, continuing her calming tune. “Especially once Garret’s back. With an Ekoan ranger on watch, they’d have to be dark-loving stupid to think they’d win in a fight.”

“They could just be desperate,” I said. “Known plenty of men to do stupid things when they’re desperate.” Myself among them. “Might be worse than bandits out here, too.” I remembered all the stories I’d heard of monsters beyond Liwokin’s walls. “Wolves and snoutbears. Daggerclaws, even.”

Lorelay laughed. “There’s no daggerclaws in Lawiko. Wolves and bears, sure, but our fire will keep them at bay. You guys worry too much.” Her melody sped up, seamlessly morphing to an energetic tune, plucked incredibly fast and without a single sour note. She held the harp-like instrument out, making a strange expression as she deftly traversed a soaring scale.

“I said stop!” Dunnax snapped. “You don’t worry enough. That’s why we’re here in the first place, or have you already forgotten?”

The music stopped on a discordant note, which must have been on purpose. I couldn’t see Lorelay’s scowl, but I could hear it in her voice. “No. I haven’t. You’ll never let me, will you?”

“No,” Dunnax said flatly, then stretched out on his bedroll, facing his back to us. He pulled his glaive as close to him as a lover.

I changed the subject, not interested in wedging myself in the middle of this sibling spat. “Where did you learn to play like that?”

It took a moment for Lorelay to respond. She put away her lyre, then sat down and sighed. “Our mother taught me, at first. Before we buried her.”

I never knew my mother, but I knew loss as well as any other. “I’m sorry.”

Lorelay shook her head. “It was a long time ago and we didn’t get along. She would catch me play fighting with one of my friends and scold me. ‘The Mother of Light arms women with song as the Father of Dark arms men with swords,’ she always said. ‘It’s the way things must be. The way they’ve always been’,” Lorelay said with a mocking voice. “Snuff that! I learned the Twelve Songs, but I never stopped learning to fight. I don’t serve the gods or their dusty old tome.”

“You don’t?” I asked, taken aback. “I thought everyone in Paceeq served the gods.”

“Why should I? They say some songs are worse than killing, that you deserve to be killed for singing them. ‘It’s the way things must be.’’ She laughed in disdain. “Not if I can help it. People are bored of the Church’s dreadful, droning dirges. Even if no one will admit it. They want to hear something new. Music they can drink and dance to without feeling the Lightmother’s prying eyes. So I give the people what they want, and they love it. Of course, not everyone does…” She trailed off, looked at Dunnax, as if to check she wasn’t salting an old wound. “What about you? What’s your story?”

I shrugged. “There isn’t much to tell. Grew up a begging orphan in the city, poor as poor can be until I found plenty of coin in thieving. Too many hungry nights sleeping on cold cobble will turn anyone to it. I’m no exception. I got plenty of practice fighting, so figured I could make a living doing it. Worked as a bounty hunter for the City Council ever since. Then, the Agency came in and all my contracts dried up.” I gave a wry laugh. “Really, bounty hunting’s no way to make a living. Too many bodies; Liwokin’s already got enough dead. Hope this job is better, that it’s more than just killing.”

Lorelay smiled.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Garret said, leaning against a tree not five paces away. He held two fat rabbits skewered by arrows.

I jumped. “Darkfather! How did you sneak up on us?”

“Easily, with you two yapping away. Didn’t even hear this one lumbering around, did you?” He pointed at Sentyx, who stood near the softly snoring Dunnax, carrying a bundle of branches. Garret’s white teeth flashed in the darkness. “There’s bandits in these woods, don’t you know? Thing is, it’s us. Killing for the Agency won’t be any different than killing for the city or killing on your own. Sure, there’s regulations and bylaws and official commands to legitimize it. Just helps you sleep at night is all. Killing is killing, in the end. There’s no difference.”

“You are wrong,” Sentyx said.

“Aye? And why’s that?” Garret asked, then waited for more from the Skardwarf. Nothing came, not even a grunt. Sentyx only dropped his branches to the ground, then kicked one away from the rest. “All right, then. Good argument. Let’s get that fire lit. I’m starving.” When no one moved to help, the Ekoan spat. “Got to do everything myself, eh?” Twisting a stick between his palms, he got the fire started in short time, though it felt longer for all the complaining he did.

Grey smoke rose and drifted in the wind to suffuse the wending branches of the trees. Embers flitted upward in the convection of the flames, stars flickering in the unsteady light that illumined the haze. In the smoldering glow of this celestial blaze, we sat eating morsels of roast rabbit in uncomfortable silence.

“So,” Lorelay finally said, around a bite of meat, “you going to tell us what that was about with Reed?”

I stalled for a while chewing on a gamy bit of rabbit haunch, then sighed. It was unavoidable they’d find out. “I’m not sure what Reed thinks I know. All I’m sure of is that Reed’s hiding something.”

“You don’t say,” Lorelay said, then mimicked Reed’s voice mockingly. “What do you want with me? No one followed you, did they?”

Sentyx looked around. “Following.”

“I don’t know who he expected to be following us,” I said. “One of Ulken’s Nerves, maybe.”

Sentyx grunted, then shoved some rabbit into his mouth, and crunched into the bone.

Dunnax looked at the Skardwarf in disgust, then spat a bone into the campfire and wiped his mouth. “Reed is Ulken’s First Eye. Why would he worry about Nerves?”

“I have a note signed by Reed,” I said, and retrieved it from my pocket. “A bounty I was after dropped it, just before he burned up trying to kill the Finger Reed sent after him.”

“Let me see that,” Dunnax said, and snatched the note. He turned it over, once, twice.

I reached to take it back. “The thing is—”

“There’s nothing on this…” Dunnax handed it to me.

“Right,” I said. “You need something special to read it. Reed’s friend, Oltrov, had a rod with a black stone attached. The thief who dropped the note had a similar stone—it was part of a stolen pendant, which Inac hired me to return.”

“Inac?” Dunnax asked.

“The mage I was with,” I said. “We wanted to show this note to Ulken, but then we were separated.”

“And Inac has the pendant, leaving you with blank piece of paper.” Lorelay laughed.

I grinned. “Not exactly the most convincing evidence.”

“Evidence of what?” she asked.

“Not sure.” Another bite of rabbit gave me time to think. “Conspiracy, I think. Reed’s got someone spying on Ulken’s advisor. Maybe Oltrov, maybe Prost, whoever that is.” I shrugged.

“Who’s the advisor?” Garret asked.

“Someone in the Agency?” I guessed. I had no better idea. “Anyway, the note also said there are monsters abroad, and Ulken can’t control them.”

“Monsters?” Garret snorted. “Things Reed doesn’t understand, is all. Plenty of big animals he’d call monsters living in Eko.”

“And people,” Sentyx said. “Men call Skardwarves monsters.”

I looked away; I was guilty of that myself. Sentyx was an odd one, but he’d done nothing to earn the label of monster.

“Aye,” Garret said, and spat. “But this is all assuming we believe you, Grim. Might be you’re just lying. You grew up thieving, probably learned some forgery too. Steal some special ink, sign someone’s name on the note, easy enough. But why were you going to show this evidence to Ulken? As some pure act of goodness, or for some personal gain?”

“As a bounty hunter, I’ve done far worse than pure good for personal gain.” I smirked. “But the note is real.”

“I believe you,” Lorelay said. “Reed did behave strangely.”

“Everyone does in Liwokin,” the Ekoan said. “Cities like that make people strange. Not enough fresh air to go around.”

Dunnax tossed the last of his meager meal into the fire. “Real or not, it makes no difference now. I’ll take first watch. The rest of you should sleep. We’ve a lot of ground to cover if we’re to reach Leppit by tomorrow.”

It struck me the next morning that something was missing. Many things were, really. The first thing I noticed was that I had no idea how much time had passed or even how far we’d come. We’d been walking uphill all morning, and there were no streets or buildings to use as landmarks. The melody of time was nonexistent here, far from the church bells in the city; only chirping birds and rustling leaves could be heard over the sounds of our footsteps as we tromped southward. I missed the chattering of passersby and the haggling of merchants and buyers, the pounding of blacksmiths’ hammers and the tapping of chisels. The industrial fetor of blazing coal and molten metal, that I didn’t miss. Nor the stink of days-old stew festering in half-empty cauldrons, still doled out to those desperate with hunger. Maybe Garret had a point about the city. The air in the woods smelled fresh and earthy. Sunbeams streamed in through breaks in the foliage above, highlighting floating pollen and lazy clouds of gnats that dispersed as we passed through. The path to Leppit was beautiful and calm and natural. Still, something nagged at me. I felt almost like we were being watched, though clearly that was ridiculous.

We’re farther from anything constructed by human hands than I’ve ever been, that’s all. There’s no one in these outlands.

Except, things aren’t always as they appear.

The Brightdaughter, arcing high in the sky, illuminated the road ahead where the cover of trees suddenly ceased. Though there had been no signs of civilization all morning, the trees hadn’t come to a natural end at all; they had been cleared to make room for an enormous bridge that crossed the Outrush Canyon. Twin iron girders as thick as city streets sank their weight into the stony earth, shot across the chasm and anchored into the other side. Metal sheets braced by lightwood beams connected the twins and formed a roadway wide enough to fit four carriages side by side. Arched beams beneath the metal sheets bit into the cliffs of the other side to support the construction’s great weight.

“The Outrush Span Bridge,” I said, as we all halted before it. “Used to connect Liwokin to Sobiko on the country’s southern tip.”

Dunnax dropped his pack to the ground, then sat and wiped the sweat from his brow. I eyed the leather sack, wondering what was inside. Whatever it was, it must have weighed a ton. Yet the huge Paceeqi man never uttered a word of complaint about it.

“How long ago was that?” Lorelay asked.

I shrugged. “Long ago.”

The bridge was stark, practical, and wholly unlike the style of engineering brought to this country by Paceeq. Only, the metal wonder, which predated the Bright Empire’s expansion into Lawiko, now seemed to be falling into disrepair, with rust coloring the road and rails.

“Doesn’t seem safe,” Garret said. “We should go around.”

“That would take too long,” Dunnax said. He heaved his pack onto his shoulders and strode forth onto the bridge, his glaive clacking, metal on metal, as he used the polearm like a walking stick.

“If it can support his weight,” I said to Garret, “we’ve got nothing to worry about.” I followed the ex-Paladin. The structure felt sturdy underfoot, so I took the chance to peek over the guard rails to catch a vertiginous sight of the Outrush’s waves crashing far below.

A hand landed between my shoulder blades and my entire body tensed. My knuckles clenched the guard rails to prevent me from falling to my death, but my feet never left the metal ground.

“Afraid of heights, Grim?” Garret chuckled. “What an ugly hunk of iron.”

“I…why would you…” came tumbling out of my mouth. My heart still hammered but I collected myself. “That wasn’t—”

“Sheath that sword!” Dunnax’s voice boomed. His pack clattered to the ground.

I started, then spun around in alarm.

Dunnax had his glaive readied in a two-handed grip, his sight on a lone man standing at the far end of the bridge. Even from this distance the tip of his blade shook like a leaf in the wind and gave away the tremble in his hands.

“Let me pass, you brigands!” the man shouted back. “I’ve nothing of any value!”

Lorelay placed her hand on Dunnax’s arm and gently lowered his weapon. “You’re mistaken, friend. We’re no brigands.”

He hesitated but kept his sword at the ready. “No? Then what are you?”

“Fingers,” Lorelay said. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

“Exactly what a bandit would say,” Garret muttered.

The swordsman slowly approached. “Don’t look like any Fingers I’ve seen.”

“Seen many Fingers, have you?” Dunnax said.

“I have, in fact.” His eyes, bright as blue sky, darted between the five of us, though they lingered longest on Sentyx. “Only one of you is wearing green,” Bright Eyes said, tilting his head toward Garret, “and that don’t look like an Agency uniform.”

Garret grinned. “You don’t like it? Made it myself.”

“You’ll let me pass, then?” he said, ignoring Garret.

Dunnax shrugged, then stepped aside. “If you don’t do anything stupid.”

“We’re headed to Leppit,” I said. “You know it?”

“Sure, I know it.” Bright Eyes neglected to sheathe his sword. “Know not to go anywhere near it. Some darkness cropped up there.”

“Darkness?” Dunnax scowled.

“Sure, Lomin said so. Been avoiding the place since.”

“Who’s Lomin?” I asked.

“Hunter in the Shaded Grounds, northwest of Leppit. I buy pelts off him, sell them in the city.”

“Thought you didn’t have anything of value,” Garret said.

“Do you see any pelts? We arranged to meet at his lodge, as usual, but he wasn’t there. Not like him to miss a chance to sell.” The trader sighed, shaking his head. “I tell you, whole world’s gone awry since the Agency showed up.”

“The Agency has nothing to do with your missing fur trader,” Dunnax said.
I rolled my eyes at Dunnax’s loyalty. We’d only been Fingers for a day, and he already felt the need to defend the place?

Bright Eyes smiled. “Right.” Then he stretched until his back cracked and said, “Well, I’m off. If you see the Net in the village, give him my regards.” Once he edged past us, he finally slid his sword into his sheath and took off running.

“Odd fellow, that one,” I said when he was out of earshot.

“The Net,” Lorelay said. “He was on our list of the missing.”

“I thought that was a mistake,” I said. “What kind of name is the Net?”

“A dead man’s,” Dunnax said, and Garret snorted.

“You don’t know that,” Lorelay said, then frowned. After all, he probably was right.

I looked over to Sentyx, who seemed content in his silence. The Skardwarf nodded once, slowly, and continued across the bridge, his bare feet thumping on metal. Garret cracked his knuckles and neck, the bones tied into his hair rattling as he jerked his neck upward. Dunnax heaved up his cumbersome pack and groaned as Lorelay took out her lyre to pass the time. I followed behind the group.

Odd fellow, but no odder than us.

The cover of trees thickened on the other side of the Canyon, and the path became overgrown and rocky. After a brief reprieve from the wilds, we now walked an untamed trail. Farther and farther from the city we went, until it seemed we were the only living souls in an unbroken, lonely stretch. It came as a shock, then, that shouts of alarm and whinnying horses reached us from up ahead. Then followed shouts of dying, and the clashing of weapons.

“Bandits,” Garret said. He strung his bow in a flash, nocked an arrow.

Dunnax bolted toward the danger, leaving us no choice but to follow. As we charged, Lorelay had two knives—one long, one short—in hand. I readied my crossbow with a quarrel. Only Sentyx carried no weapon.

The scene was chaos when we arrived. Two horses, frenzied and wild-eyed, had broken free of an ornate carriage and rushed past us. An equally wild-eyed man chased after the beasts. A richly dressed nobleman fought with a longsword alongside three guards to protect the carriage from bandits. He parried a wild overhand blow with his sword, then sidestepped and drove it through his attacker to the hilt. He yanked the bloody sword free, but another bandit was already on him.

“Fourteen,” Garret said. His arrow took the bandit in the neck, buying the nobleman a chance to notice us. The nobleman’s eyes went wide as the bandit gurgled, clutched at his throat, and collapsed. “Thirteen.” Under his dark hood, rage filled Garret’s eyes. He ran off in search of a new target.

Even with my Hand in the fight, we were outnumbered.

“There’s too many, Vinlin!” a guard shouted. “Leave the offerings and flee!” A bandit’s knife sliced the back of his knee, and he went down. The knife found his throat next.

The dead man was right. A smarter man would flee, but this Vinlin was a nobleman. He’d never leave his goods to the bandits.

Dunnax charged in toward Vinlin. His shoulder caught a bandit whose sword was overhead, knocking him to the ground. A swift strike with the butt end of his glaive caved in the man’s head. “Get behind me, Your Radiance!” Dunnax shouted.

I spotted a bow-wielding woman in painted leather hiding behind a tree. Took aim.
She popped out and drew her bowstring, but my trigger finger was faster. My quarrel struck her in the shoulder and the bow fell from her limp hand.

“Sentyx!” Lorelay shouted.

I turned in time to see a bandit swinging an iron sword with both hands at Sentyx’s midsection. The Skardwarf didn’t dodge. The sword struck its body full force and bounced off, ringing as if the man had struck a brick wall. The bandit’s shock lasted long enough for Sentyx to grab him by the shoulders and drive a rock-hard forehead into the bridge of the man’s nose. Sentyx tossed the broken bandit down and turned to find another. I shivered at the calm brutality of it.

Glad the Skardwarf is on our side. This one, at least.

I turned back to finish off the bandit I hit, but she was gone. Two more bandits dropped their weapons and fled from Sentyx into the woods. I counted six bodies on the forest floor, three littered with arrows. That left eight to deal with, but only one of Vinlin’s guards still lived.

Dunnax swiped his glaive in a wide arc, but his target dodged backward. The Paceeqi’s misstep left him open. He paid for it with a slash to his ribs. Dunnax staggered back, clutching his side. Blood seeped through his sweat-soaked white shirt between his fingers. Before the bandit’s next blow found home, Vinlin stepped in to deflect it. Lorelay arrived and drove her short knife into the bandit’s back.

Footsteps behind me. I tensed, then ducked, felt the wind of the blade sail over my head. I let my crossbow drop, grabbed my knife, and swiped upward. My knife caught the worn and rusted sword by the hilt, knocked it from my attacker’s grip. She gasped. I pointed my knife at her. Hesitated. Her blonde hair fell to her shoulders, where a leather strap secured her makeshift armor. Red trickled down her arm from where my quarrel bit into her skin. Green paint streaked the brown leather, the same color as her eyes. Eyes filled with fear. I ground my teeth. A bounty hunter does what he must to survive.

But then a woman’s words came to me.

Some choices can’t be unmade.

I blinked. The adrenaline pulsed through my body; the knife shook in my hand.

“Go,” I said. The bandit flinched at my words. “Go!” I drew back the knife as if to strike, and she ran.

When an arrow took her between the shoulder blades and she toppled forward, I cried out in surprise. Garret, thirty paces away, spat on the ground and nocked another arrow. I clenched my fist.

She wasn’t a threat any longer…

All the fight went out of me, but it appeared to have left our attackers as well. They were routed, fleeing the carriage. Only two escaped without taking one of Garret’s arrows in the back. The ranger had no mercy for bandits.

“Dunnax!” Lorelay shouted. “Help him!” She held a dying man in her arms, one of Vinlin’s guards. The guard’s breathing was shallow. With each tiny breath he grimaced in pain. One side of his body was entirely soaked in dark red.

Her brother threw down his weapon and scrambled toward her, still holding the wound he took. Vinlin stood nearby, looking down at the pair attempting to save his man’s life. But by the time Dunnax laid hands on him, the guard had already expired. The ex-Paladin punched the ground and swore an oath. Then, he stood and bowed to Vinlin. “Apologies, Your Radiance. We failed you.”

I cocked my head at that. Your Radiance? Who was this nobleman?

His eyes were like the flowers of the Brightdaughter, black pupils ringed by a bold yellow. He wore a red leather tunic with fine gold tracery. Though the garb didn’t look fit for battle, it served the man well enough. Blood stained the gold and broke the symmetric patterns. As the nobleman still stood tall, it didn’t seem any of the blood was his own. The way he was looking down his nose at me, I wished some of it was.

He fought well, at least. For an uppity snob.

Dunnax picked up his glaive and started walking toward his discarded pack. With a glance at his sister, he said, “Come on. We’re leaving.”

Vinlin slid his sword into the sheath at his hip. “No. Come here, all of you.”

Four of us stood before the nobleman, but Garret was missing. Probably off hunting the last of the bandits.

With suspicious eyes, Vinlin looked us over. “A Skardwarf, here in the Bright Empire? Interesting. And you two, you’re Paceeqi.”

Dunnax wouldn’t meet the man’s eyes. His stone-faced expression resembled Sentyx’s. Lorelay, on the other hand, looked positively cheery.

“We are,” she said. With both hands, she grabbed his, paying little attention to the rings he wore, or his look of shock. “Thank you for saving my brother’s life.” She let go of the nobleman and elbowed Dunnax teasingly. “He’s gotten sloppy, not enough training out of his armor.”

“Armor? Uh, is that right?” The nobleman stuttered with embarrassment.

“Lorelay…” Dunnax growled, still looking at the ground.

Lorelay frowned as if recalling a bad memory. “Right…sorry we didn’t arrive sooner.”

Vinlin rubbed his head, mussing his crop of bright blond hair. “I’m glad you arrived at all. Without your assistance, I’m afraid my life would have been forfeit.” He chuckled. “What a mess that would have caused back home.”

I rolled my eyes. What nobleman didn’t have an inflated opinion of himself?

“Well, we won’t be around to save you again,” I said. “What are you doing out here with a golden carriage like that? Trying to attract bandits?”

“Golden cart full of treasures,” Garret said. The ranger had swept aside the velvet curtain at the back of the Vinlin’s carriage to steal a peek inside. Past him, I could see the inside was as exquisitely decorated as the outside, all gold and red, and filled near to bursting with an assortment of expensive-looking objects.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Vinlin demanded.

Garret hopped down and shrugged. “Old habits.”

Vinlin glowered at the Ekoan. “Is this how treat your betters?”

“By saving their skins and not asking for any recompense?” Garret spat. “Better than you would have gotten from the bandits.”

Garret crossed his arms and stood his ground in front of Vinlin’s carriage. Dunnax tightened his grip on his glaive; I could only guess who he was getting ready to defend. I held my breath. The tension felt thicker than the schism that divided the Gild from the Blight.

There was fire in the nobleman’s eyes, but then he closed them. He took a long, deep inhale, then blew it out. When he opened his eyes again, the anger had melted away. Vinlin nodded. “Right. A reward. I should be thanking you, not making any more enemies. The Lightmother knows I have plenty of those already.”

“We don’t require any reward, Your Radiance,” Dunnax muttered. “It was my duty to protect you.”

“Ah, but you’ll receive one anyway,” Vinlin said. “You clearly recognize me, but the rest of your companions don’t. Good citizenship must never go unrewarded in the Bright Empire.”

“I saw a good-looking horn in the cart,” Garret said. “I’ll take that.”

Vinlin laughed. “Those offerings aren’t mine to give. They’re my mother’s.”

“All that for your mother?” Lorelay whistled. “She must have a taste richer than the Lightmother.”

Dunnax tensed, almost imperceptibly.

But Vinlin guffawed. “The richest in the Empire, I’m sure. Sometimes I think she’d mistaken herself for the Lightmother.”

“Your Radiance,” a tired voice came, along with the clopping of hooves. “I’ve recovered the horses.”

“Well done!” Vinlin clapped the man on the back. “Now, hitch them to the carriage so we can be on our way. I don’t relish the thought of another attack before we reach the enclave.” As the horse-handler led the horses toward the front of the carriage, Vinlin turned to us and produced a coin purse. “Well, I must be off. Thank you again, my friends, truly. Here, take this.” Sentyx happened to be standing closest to him and took the entire purse. Vinlin laughed. “For me to pay a Skardwarf who helped save my life. Such strange times. Still, this is hardly enough. Should our paths cross in the future, I’ll find a way to further repay you.”

“With as much gold as you have,” Garret said, “that shouldn’t be too hard.”

“I have much more to offer than gold, rest assured.”

Garret grinned. “Oh, I’m sure.”

Vinlin climbed in the back of the carriage as his man brought it around, then said, “May the Mother’s Light guide you. Farewell.” He banged twice on the carriage wall, closed the velvet curtain, and the ornate carriage pulled away.

When we all collected our belongings and readied to continue south, Garret said to Dunnax, “So, what does a Paladin do in Paceeq?”

The former Paladin eyed Garret warily, as if the ranger had laid a trap to ensnare him. “Whatever we’re given orders to do. Upholding the law. Apprehending heretics. Protecting important property.”

“Bounty hunters with a fancy name, then,” I said. Dunnax ignored me.

“Hiding secrets from your Emperor doesn’t make the list?” Garret asked, though it clearly wasn’t a question.

This, the Paladin couldn’t ignore. He growled. “There is no Emperor. Only an Empress, Ekoan.”

Garret laughed. “Not anymore. I may be Ekoan, but I know the royal traditions. That was Elzia’s son on pilgrimage.”

Elzia. I froze. Her name was known throughout the Empire. The Empress’ son? That wasn’t just some self-righteous rich man.

“Wait, that was the Bright Prince?” Lorelay’s eyes slowly widened. “And I joked about his mother… Oh, Lightmother’s teats…”

“Worse than that,” Garret said. “The Bright Prince collecting artifacts from across the Empire, that can only mean one thing. Empress Elzia is gone. You joked about his dead mother.” The Ekoan snorted. “Good thing he liked you.”

The Paceeqi girl burst out laughing. At the outburst, Dunnax stomped off. Lorelay followed close behind, trying to hold herself together.

Her brother may have been right. She didn’t worry enough. I eyed Dunnax’s glaive, sunlight glinting along its sharp edge. Lucky our royal reward was gold. If the prince was more ill-tempered, it might have been steel instead.

“He is hiding something, you know,” Garret said to me as we trailed behind Sentyx and the Paceeqi siblings. He jerked his chin toward Dunnax, whose wounded side was glowing as the Paladin healed himself with Archefire.

I shrugged. “You shouldn’t taunt him like that.”

“I’ve spent too much time around bandits.” Garret leveled his gaze at me. “I know an outlaw when I see one.”

“Dunnax, an outlaw?”

“Why not?” Garret spat. “Everyone’s got some secret.”

I gave a noncommittal grunt. Those who trusted the least often had the most to hide.

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