Table of Contents
Part 1: Bag of Money
Month of Planter, Day 5
Rain drenched the city, cold and relentless. It leached all color from the unfamiliar medieval-looking buildings, turning the world grey and soaking through the filthy rag in which I swaddled myself. The sour stench rising from the grimy folds was truly epic. I couldn’t feel my toes, and my fingers were going numb.
I glanced at the rock waiting by my feet to make sure it was still there. I’d picked it up by a ruined building this morning and carried it for two hours until I found the right bridge. The rock lay in a small puddle, a chunk of cream-colored building stone about the size of a large grapefruit. Any bigger and it would be too hard for me to grab with one hand.
A cold, foul-smelling raindrop dripped from the fold of the cloth on my head and landed on my cheek. Ugh. I pressed tighter against the stone wall of the nearest building in hopes that the narrow overhang above me would block at least some of the rain. It didn’t.
The three-story tall buildings that bordered the alley towered like walls of a stone canyon, boxing me in. Sometime between yesterday evening and today’s morning, my stomach had turned into a painful bottomless pit. I hadn’t eaten in three days. I wasn’t even shivering anymore. My body didn’t have the energy.
The alley where I huddled faced a narrow stone bridge spanning the width of a rain-swollen river. Directly in front of me, past the bridge and behind the wall of more buildings, rose the Mage Tower, a slender spire about 600 feet high, topped by a big flower bud with petals of opaque, pale glass. Right now the petals were closed, guarding the observation deck in the flower’s center against the rain, and every few seconds gold sparks dashed through enchanted glass.
In the distance, a bell tolled four times. Four pm.
It wouldn’t be too long now. I just had to hold on. I could do it. I didn’t have a choice.
To say that this was not the way I envisioned spending my Sunday would be a criminal understatement. Today would’ve been my one day off. I should’ve spent it watching Netflix and reading while lounging on my couch in my tiny apartment, in my soft sweatpants, warm and dry. Not wrapped in a dirty rag, shivering in a grimy alley, while the sky dumped gallons of cold rain on my head.
I wasn’t a big reader through most of my childhood, but when I was sixteen, my first serious boyfriend broke up with me, and it was hell. My brain kept rehashing every moment of the relationship in excruciating detail. My mom handed me a thick fantasy book and when I turned my nose up at it, she told me, “Maggie, you need to live in someone else’s head for a bit.”
I thought I would read a few pages. When I came up for air, five hours later, my breakup was an afterthought. It still hurt, but not nearly as much. Some seriously messed up crap happened on the first page and the hits just kept coming. I couldn’t stop reading, and somehow the book had wrang me dry of all painful emotions. I felt so much better.
Fantasy became my vice of choice. I’d read tons of books since then, but that very first series was my special treasure. The Rise of Kair Toren. The magical city of cutthroat assassins, ruthless nobles, and merchant princes. The series had two books, The Thieves of the North and The Lords of the East. Two incredible books, thick enough to be used as a weapon. The third book never came out.
I had been rereading those two books for the last ten years. Whenever life got to be too harsh, I would grab them off my bookshelf and they never failed me. I could quote passages from memory. I had stalked the author’s abandoned website religiously for any hint of a release date for the third book and checked the fan groups for rumors, stewing in a collective frustration. The story just cut off in the middle. There was no conclusion, no pay off, no justice.
Two nights ago, after a long day of delivering groceries, I watched some Netflix, went to sleep in my apartment south of Austin, and woke up in Kair Toren.
A red furry creature about the size of an average cat padded out from the rain-soaked alley and stared at me with unblinking dark eyes. Its head was round, with curved fisher ears that stood straight up, a button nose, and very long whiskers. It didn’t walk, it slunk, its longish body sitting low on four short legs, its webbed hand-paws armed with sharp retractable claws. It was like an otter and a Ragdoll cat had a baby and dyed it red.
A stelka. They infested Kair Toren and its five rivers, catching fish and mice, eating garbage, raiding cellars, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down, and generally being a nuisance. Like overly smart rats, except that normal rats at least hesitated before they scurried over to take a bite out of someone ten times their size. Last night, exhausted and desperate, I’d fallen asleep under some busted crates, and this morning I woke up because one of these red assholes decided to chew on my leg.
The stelka opened its mouth and showed me sharp white teeth.
It couldn’t be.
I crouched and tilted my head, trying to get a better look.
There it was, a white patch on the stelka’s chest that looked like a lopsided half-moon. I had seen a dozen stelkas in three days of stumbling around the city, and only one of them had a white patch like that. I must’ve been really delicious.
“You followed me.” My voice creaked like I had crawled out of the grave.
The stelka eyed me.
“Nope. Not happening.”
The little creature took a step forward.
I showed it my rock.
I gripped the rock and hit the cobblestones with it.
The beast hissed, darted past me, climbed over the low rock wall, and leaped into the river.
That’s right. And don’t come back.
I slumped against the wall. It was unhinged, but I was almost sorry to see it go. In the past three days, that little stelka was the only living creature that acknowledged my existence.
I’d read this type of story before. It was a portal fantasy, a subgenre of fantasy romance that got really popular. It seemed in every other book some poor office worker woman about my age got hit by a bus and ended up in some fictional world.
I knew exactly how things were supposed to go. I was meant to appear in this new world as a woman of prophecy with magic holy powers so I could assist the kingdom with their blight or curse problem. I would be met by a prince or some high ranking and stunning noble, and upon heroically demonstrating my abilities, I would become the center of attention, while a gaggle of ridiculously handsome men followed me around, pledged their swords to me, and pleaded with me not to overexert myself.
Failing that, I could wake up in the body of the female lead, usually a daughter of a prominent noble house, after she flung herself into a lake in despair over being shunned by a villainous prince and died, conveniently vacating her body for my soul to take it over. I would pretend to suffer from amnesia while an army of maids waited on me hand and foot and plot my revenge, during which I would be fawned on by a dangerous and ice-cold male lead, who would turn into devoted puppy in my vicinity.
Alternatively, I could come to in the body of the villainess, usually another daughter of a prominent noble house, after she flung herself into a lake, etc., etc., despair, death, maids, hand and foot, and then I would convince everyone that I was just misunderstood and win over the dangerous and ice-cold male lead, who would abandon the heroine for me.
If not the heroine or the villainess, I could be their best friend. Their younger sister. A lesser noble. A chamber maid. I would’ve happily taken the fucking chamber maid, and I’d have emptied their chamber pots with a big smile plastered on my face because it would’ve been miles better than this.
That’s not what I got.
I woke up choking on rainwater in a muddy ditch. Naked. Without any magic powers.
When I finally coughed all the sludge out of my mouth, crawled out, and saw the Mage Tower rising above the city with its opalescent glass petals, I thought I had lost my mind.
The Rise of Kair Toren was not a pretty princess kind of fantasy. It was a gritty life is a bitch and then she cuts you fantasy. I stumbled upon a ragged blanket someone had forgotten in the rain, dug it out of the mud, and wrapped it around me, stench of urine and all. Because if I didn’t, I would be assaulted, murdered, sold, or forced to suffer any of the other tragic things that happened to women running around alone and naked in this city. I needed to look like a beggar, and the less attention I drew to myself, the better.
In our world, there were homeless shelters, police stations, and emergency rooms. I could’ve walked into any one of those and said, “I have amnesia, help me.” And I would be helped.
Kair Toren had none of that. If I were to stumble into a guard station as I was, wrapped in my nasty rag, they would throw me back out onto the street and tell me to thank my lucky stars they hadn’t done anything worse.
The city was huge, filled with tall stone buildings with sturdy doors and bars on the windows. The pouring rain chased everyone indoors, and the stores were shuttered. Theft wasn’t an option. I couldn’t even panhandle, and if I tried, I’d be beaten up. The beggars of Kair Toren were notoriously territorial. Running me off would be the nicest thing they would do. Their world was grim – the strong preyed on the weak, and nobody cared. I ran into a pack of them kicking and punching each other in a side street near one of the temples and ran away as fast as I could.
I drank rainwater when I was thirsty and prayed I wouldn’t get dysentery. I squatted in alleys when I had to pee. I’d torn two armholes in my blanket and tied it around myself so I could run away fast if I had to. I hid wherever I could to sleep and had only managed a few hours in the last two nights. I had to fight off magic water rats. The first day I was in denial and expecting the nightmare to end, the second, I was desperate and scared, and now only the grim determination remained. This damn city would not kill me. I’ve invested hours into those cursed books. I would survive.
Yesterday, in my desperate search for a trash can with some food garbage in it – I hadn’t found any – I stumbled past a signboard announcing the current date. It was the 5th of Planter, the last month of spring, of the year 3044. I was at the end of chapter one of the first book. Today around 4:00 pm a man called Lecke would cross the Estret Bridge. He was a scummy, sniveling prick, the kind of character that makes you wait an entire book for a rock to fall on his head and crush his skull.
When Lecke was eighteen years old, his parents died in a mill fire. He didn’t set it, but it had served his purposes beautifully. He had wanted to get out of the countryside for a while, and now he could sell everything they owned and take off for greener pastures. Unfortunately for him, his two younger brothers, one ten and the other seven, didn’t perish with his parents, so Lecke strangled them in their sleep, threw their bodies into the nearest ravine, and told the village that they had gone to live with his nonexistent aunt and uncle. That was only the beginning of his career, and it went from bad to worse. Now he made his money as a fence, buying and selling bloodstained jewelry and other valuables brought to his door late at night by people with vicious eyes.
Lecke would be carrying a bag of money from a particularly good haul. I had to get that bag.
I studied my rock. Normally, a man in Lecke’s profession would have a bodyguard, but he didn’t trust anyone. Instead, he carried a knife and was very good with it. Even if I had a sword or a mace, which I didn’t, assaulting him at my full strength would likely end with me dying. Trying to attack him now, with my head swimming from hunger and only a rock as my weapon, was suicide. But I was out of options.
Of course, I could just curl up on the street and die of exposure, hunger, and thirst. But I wanted to live. Kair Toren wouldn’t kill me. I wouldn’t give it the satisfaction.
As if on cue, someone walked out from the mouth of the street at the other side of the river and stepped onto the bridge. The Estret was one of the city’s narrower bridges, about a hundred feet long but only fifteen feet wide, guarded by a hip-high stone rail. Surprise was my best bet. I had to snatch the bag and run, because if he caught me, it would all be over.
I scooped up a handful of mud that had accumulated by the wall of the building next to me and smeared it on my face. If I did manage to get away, no need to be recognized later.
The figure kept walking, unhurried despite the rain.
I grabbed my rock, tugged the ragged blanket in place, and ventured out into the open. My bare toes had turned into icicles long ago. I didn’t walk, I lurched like some zombie.
Get the bag. Get the bag. Get the bag…
The distance between us shrank, the curtain of rain thinning as we came closer to each other. I could see his cloak now, a deep hunter green. Yes, this was my man.
If worse came to worst, I could grab the bag and jump into the river. I swam in the ocean every summer vacation since I was little.
I glanced over the rail. The waters of Koeg River churned below, dark brown from silt.
I would probably survive it. Probably.
I stumbled to the other side of the bridge, as if avoiding Lecke. He showed no sign of noticing me.
Twenty feet. Ten. Five.
The world snapped into terrifying clarity.
We passed each other on the opposite sides of the bridge like two ships in the night.
I spun around and charged at him, swinging my rock.
He must’ve sensed me coming because he turned, but not fast enough. My rock connected with his skull. Lecke stumbled. I leaped at him and thrust my hands under his cloak. My fingers clutched thick canvas, and something inside it made a metallic clink.
I yanked the bag away from him with all my strength, throwing the weight of my body into it. It came free.
I did it!
Lecke lunged at me. Something sharp and cold bit into my side, and I saw him up close, deep-set piggish eyes staring at me from a face twisted with rage.
He’d stabbed me.
The cold blade bit into me again and again, slicing through my insides. I tried to back away, but the stone rail of the bridge dug into my butt, and he was so fast.
Lecke grabbed the bag and jerked back. I clung to it.
“Let go!” he snarled.
I had a death grip on that damn bag. No force in the universe could make me let go.
The bloody knife slashed in front of me, drawing an icy line across my neck. Heat wet my skin. Bright, shocking red sprayed Lecke’s face and cloak.
He’d cut my throat. He killed me. No more curling up in my apartment with a book. No more Netflix. I would never see my parents again. All my dreams and hope, all the things I didn’t get to do, it was all over. My small comfortable life ended right here.
He wouldn’t take this bag even if it was the final thing I did in my short life. I gripped the canvas sack and, with the last of my strength, hurled myself backward over the rail into the river. The sky, smothered with gray clouds, yawned at me, tilted, and then dark cold water fell on my face and swallowed me whole.
I choked on muddy water. Before my brain could process things, my body took over. I flipped onto my stomach and retched.
I was still alive and drowning again.
How was I alive?
Every spasm hurt like hell. I felt the pain all the way in my toes.
The last of the water spilled out of me. I coughed, my throat raw, and opened my eyes, half expecting to be back in the same ditch somehow.
No, not a ditch. Above me, high up, was some sort of dark roof or ceiling. I was on my hands and knees in about six inches of water. My left hand was squishing slimy mud. My right was still clutching the money bag, its cord wrapped in a tangle around my wrist.
I untied the cord and pulled the bag open with shaking fingers. Silver coins. Handfuls of them.
I hugged the bag to my naked chest and sobbed. For a few moments nothing existed except the bag and overwhelming relief.
Gradually it dawned on me that I was naked again and that what I could see of myself looked unwounded. Lecke had stabbed me. I was sure of it. I closed my eyes, and my memory served up the knife slicing into me in a flash of pain. Yes, he’d definitely stabbed me. And then cut my throat. I checked my neck. No blood. No wound. No scar that I could feel. Nothing on my stomach either.
Even if he hadn’t stabbed me, the river should’ve killed me. I should’ve drowned.
Where the hell was I?
I looked around. The rain still sifted from the sky, but it was no longer a drenching shower. I attacked Lecke about thirty minutes after 4:00 pm. Now the dusk was creeping in. Dark water stretched in front and to the sides, flowing around a narrow strip of muddy ground choked with weeds and low bushes wrapped in a thorny vine. A stone column rose behind me, supporting the roof above my head. Far in the distance, the top of the Mage Tower fluoresced weakly against the encroaching darkness. When I’d waited by the bridge, it jutted almost directly across from me, and now it was much farther away, which meant the river had carried me downstream.
I had washed up on Ogden Island, a muddy little chunk of solid ground at the junction of two smaller rivers. Ogden was the only island downstream of the Estret Bridge that would still let me see the Mage Tower. I knew this because one of the characters chose this spot for an ambush and had a whole page of inner monologue about the beauty of the Mage Tower and how this was the only island where it could be seen.
I was sitting under the Ogden Bridge right by a busy neighborhood. I needed to get the hell out of here before someone noticed me or Lecke came looking.
Getting up proved to be a heroic challenge and took three tries. My stomach didn’t have a gash, but my whole body hurt as if someone had pummeled me with a rolling pin. Finally, I stood and leaned against the column, which was likely a bridge pier, took a short breather, and stumbled forward, keeping my left hand on the stones and my right cradling the money. Every step hurt, but I was losing light and fast.
I rounded the pier and squinted at the narrow stretch of shrub-covered ground. Something rested on the muddy shore, halfway in the water. The air reeked of an unmistakable, slightly sweet stench.
A dead body. I waded through the ankle-deep water toward it.
It was blue-black and bloated. I couldn’t even tell if it was a woman or a man. It looked like it would fall apart at any moment.
I retched, but there was nothing in my stomach, so I just dry heaved until I peed myself. I would’ve cried, but I didn’t have the energy for it.
The body wore a cloak and some sort of tunic and pants, ripped and stained with body fluids. A rope wrapped around the corpse’s waist, its ends torn. There must’ve been a weight attached to it. This was a planned drowning, never meant to be discovered. The flood waters must’ve dislodged the corpse from the riverbed and carried it to the island.
I waited until my eyes stopped watering from the stink, walked over to the body, crouched, and unhooked its cloak. Getting it off the corpse proved a lot easier than expected. I pulled, and it came free.
I had to wash it. The river was cold, muddy, and dark. I grit my teeth, dragged the cloak into the cold river, crouched, and sloshed it around.
A small shape slunk out of twilight to the right of me. I turned my head.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
The little stelka hugged the ground and showed me her teeth.
My voice came out ragged, like a growl. “I will end you. I mean it.”
The stelka hesitated, unsure.
I rinsed the cloak some more.
If I ever went back to my world, I would burn every copy of The Thieves of the North I could find. I would build a Viking funeral pyre out of them on a raft, push it into Lake Travis, and howl like a wolf while flames consumed it.
The cloak stank. Not as bad as I expected – being soaked in the river prior to washing up must’ve helped – so I put it on and staggered around the shore of the small island. I could really use some shoes… No. Stuffing my feet into boots filled with human sludge was beyond me. Barefoot it was.
The stelka watched me, wary.
The assassin who hid on this island, waiting for his victim to cross the bridge, mentioned that one of the piers had metal hand holds for the times when piers and the islands had to be maintained. I scanned the three piers. The middle pair offered a row of metal brackets. My way out. I tied the bag of money to my wrist and took one last look around.
Something was wrong with the river’s current ahead. Something odd…
There it was, about fifty yards away, a section of the river that seemed unnaturally free of the ripples. It was the same color, a muddy brown, but smooth, like a ten-foot-wide disk of clear plastic…
I had no idea what the hell it was. It wasn’t in the books, but every instinct in me screamed that it was bad and I had to avoid it at all costs.
The disk cut across the current to the left, heading straight for the island.
Fear shot through me like an electric shock. I spun around and sprinted to the pier with handholds, stumbling over fallen branches and weeds. The shrubs caught my cloak. I ripped it free and kept going, jerking my feet out of the mud.
Behind me something let out a desperate shriek. I looked over my shoulder. The little stelka was flailing in a clump of thorny shrubs, stuck up to her chest in mud.
The wedge sped toward us. An eerie feeling squirmed along my back, like a clammy, wet hand brushing my skin.
I reversed, tore back through the shrubs, yanked the little beast free, and heaved her onto my shoulder. She sank her claws into the cloak and my skin, screaming.
I crashed through the bushes, heading for the pier. Mud squelched under my feet. I slid on the sludge, caught myself, slid again, and skidded into stone. My fingers caught the first metal hand hold, and I scrambled up. Three breaths, and I climbed onto the bridge and whipped around.
Below me, something large slid out of the river. It was translucent and flat, almost like a tongue swirling with terrifying darkness. It licked the shore of the tiny island and slipped back into the water.
The corpse was gone as if it had never been there.
The translucent disk hovered on the edge of the island, waiting.
I held my breath. On my shoulder the stelka held completely still.
The disk sank below the surface.
I exhaled. And realized I had a wild animal clawing into my shoulder. At that exact moment, the stelka realized she was clinging to a weird human. I jerked, she squeaked, I stumbled back, she leapt off my shoulder and raced off into the night, vanishing between the houses at the other end of the bridge.
Okay then. So that happened.
I swallowed, adjusted the cloak, hid my money under it, and forced myself to turn away from the river toward the city.
The rain had eased but the streets were still deserted. Night had pounced, drowning the city, the outlines of tall buildings charcoal sketches against a deeper gloom. Darkness pooled in the mouths of alleys and stretched onto the steets. Here and there a few windows were lit from within, taunting me with warmth.
I needed to find shelter.
Inns were a staple of the fantasy genre. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting some inviting hostel, where adventurers gathered to eat stew, talk shop, and rent rooms, while eyeing some sinister-looking guys sitting in a corner. Kair Toren didn’t have any of those.
Over a century ago, during a civil war, a rebel princess disguised her army as merchants and travelers, snuck them into Kair Toren, trickling them in over a few weeks, and then massacred half the city. Now taverns were forbidden to offer lodging, and all official, licensed hostels were confined to the Inn Quarter, walled off from the rest of Kair Toren.
To stay in the Inn Quarter, I wouldn’t just need money, I would need identification papers or the crest of a prominent family. Even the White Stag, the least expensive of the inns, screened their patrons. I wouldn’t even get through the door in my corpse cloak and bare feet.
My toes started their transformation into icicles again. The adrenaline rush was wearing off.
There were no inns, but there were public baths, several of them, and they were open late, because at least four characters had clandestine meetings in them throughout the books. Let’s see, I was on Ogden Bridge, which meant the closest female bathhouse would be the Kahenna Springs. And Kahenna Springs sold used rags. Five blocks down the street, three blocks to the right. Okay. I could do this.
I turned, crossed the bridge, and started down the cobblestone street, hugging myself against the cold. My feet hurt. My shoulder burned where the stelka had clawed me. My stomach hurt, begging for food. A sob broke free, and I bit down on it. Survive first, cry later.
The door to the bathhouse was lit by a single lantern that illuminated a faded sign with a stylized spring. I paused at the edge of the light and looked into my bag. Mostly silver coins, nomas, a bit larger than a silver dollar. Each noma equaled 50 copper dens, and each den equaled 4 quarters. A quarter would buy me a pint of ale; a den would buy me a young chicken, and a noma would buy me a weaned calf. Thank you, numerous rereads.
Walking into the bathhouse and flashing all my ill-gotten cash would get my throat slit again. I had to find some change.
I dug in the bag. I’d jostled it back and forth carrying it, so all the small coins would be at the bottom. I rummaged until I found some and pulled them out. A couple of copper coins the size of a nickel that had to be dens and three even smaller copper coins, probably quarters. Perfect. I hid my sack and walked through the door.
A small room greeted me, bisected by a wooden counter and lit by another lantern. Two doors led out of it, one on each side. Stone floor, none too clean, stone walls, and a middle-aged woman with a stone expression behind the counter. She was taller than me by half a head, her hair, touched with gray, was pulled back from her face into a braid, and she was built like a power lifter. Her flat stare told me that if I caused any trouble, she would pick me up and throw me out the door. Judging by the breadth of her shoulders, she probably could.
I opened my mouth.
A paralyzing fear gripped me. I tried to make words, but nothing happened. I hadn’t spoken to a human being in three days. What if I said something, and English would come out instead of whatever they spoke here? What if she asked me questions?
I’d run away. The door was right there. She wouldn’t chase me.
The bathhouse woman just stared.
I had to say something. I strained, and miraculously my memory served up the right phrase.
“A wash and soap.” My voice sounded hoarse.
It worked. Holy crap, it worked. “Yes. And a used rag, if you have any. For my back and for my feet.”
The woman’s stare gained a slight edge. Kair Toren cremated most of its dead, and their clothes, made unclean by their passing, were supposed to be destroyed. Instead, some of them were sold on the black market to places like Kahenna Springs. Getting caught selling “used rags” meant a hefty fine.
The woman scrutinized me. Acknowledging that they sold used rags would open her to prosecution but denying it meant letting go of easy money. In Kair Toren, greed usually won.
“2 dens and 3 quarters.”
Highway robbery. I made a big show of looking at the change in my hand, making sure she saw what I had, and put 5 coins on the wooden counter.
She pulled a puck of soap from under the counter, about the size of the copper coin, added a gray threadbare towel, swiped the money into her palm, and jerked her head to the left.
“The rags are on the hooks. Pick one for your back and one for your feet. Just one each.”
I nodded, took the soap and the towel, and escaped to the left, into a dimly lit room.
Moisture beaded on the stone walls, and four lanterns shimmered with a halo. To the left, a row of hooks waited, all empty except for the last few, which held some dresses, a shirt, and a pair of pants. Four pairs of worn shoes waited on the floor. A pipe ran the length of the ceiling in the center of the room, with half a dozen chains suspended from it at regular intervals.
I took off my cloak, wrapped my towel around my bag of money, and carried the bundle to the pipe. The floor sloped to it, with a large drain in the center.
I set my towel on the floor, out of the way, stepped up under the nearest chain, and pulled it. Tepid water poured onto my head. Letting go of the chain shut it off. I took my soap and began to scrub on autopilot. I had to get clean and get out, before the woman at the counter got any ideas.
The water that ran from me was dirty, but not bloody. My stomach didn’t have a scar. The canvas bag wrapped in the towel assured me that I hadn’t hallucinated my own murder. It had happened.
There was only one possible explanation. Whatever force that had brought me here wanted me to stay alive.
Suddenly I missed my parents so intensely that I crouched, trying to curl into a fetal ball, with my half-soaped hair draping over my face.
I missed my apartment. I missed my car. I had never wanted to come here. Kair Toren was the kind of place you wanted to visit only from the comfort of your home while sipping tea on your couch. You dove into it, let it crush your emotions, and then surfaced, grateful to be back in your own safe little corner of existence.
I wanted to go home. I closed my eyes and wished for it with all of my being.
Nothing happened. I was still crouching in the public bath, on the wet floor.
I had already tried dying. That hadn’t worked either.
Something banged beyond the door. I needed to get a move on. I forced myself to stand up and pulled the chain. Water splashed on my hair.
Maybe there was some purpose to my being here, something that only I could accomplish and then I would get to go home. Or maybe this was it. This was my life now.
A hard lump blocked my throat.
I had to avoid dying at all costs. The pain had been excruciating, and the echo of that hurt still rattled around deep inside my bones. Thinking about it made me shiver, which was a mistake because all of me was terribly sore.
I needed a plan. I had to find shelter and get some food. I wasn’t sure if I could die of starvation, but I didn’t want to find out.
I rinsed the rest of the soap out the best I could, scooped up my money and tied it back around my wrist, dried myself with the rough towel, and rummaged through the clothes on the hooks. Two plain dresses, one brown and the other gray. No embroidered crests identifying them as uniforms belonging to maids from a noble house. No workshop embroidery either. As anonymous as you could get.
I took the smaller dress and put it on. I took the shoes, too, simple old boots that were a size too large, and slipped the cloak over my clothes. As I reached for the door, something moved on the wall, catching my eye. An old metal mirror, pitted from moisture, spanning the height of the wall.
A woman in her mid-twenties looked back at me. About five feet four inches, tan, average build, long brown hair, sort of wavy, face pretty in a normal person way. No jewel-toned eyes, no raven locks, stunning features, or perfect proportions. I hadn’t taken over anyone’s body. I was still me.
I headed to the exit.
The bathhouse proprietor ignored me. I went out the door and kept walking. Shoes were amazing things. Clothes were pretty up there, too.
Getting clean sharpened my memory. I headed north, toward the Bull Gate. The rain had finally stopped, which meant the human predators would soon emerge. I had to hurry.
Kair Toren was a huge city and Bull’s Gate was in the north, on the very edge of it. I must’ve walked for an hour or so, but it felt like forever. Finally, the streets ended, as if cut off with a knife, and the Bull Gate rose ahead, the empty space in front of it lit by torches, their light playing on the massive bronze doors shut tight. High above, the city guards prowled the wall.
I turned, so the gate was to my left. A row of tall buildings greeted me, three stories high and built without any spaces between them. The entire street was like the bottom of a stone canyon. It was meant to channel the flood of invaders into a narrow kill space if the gates were breached.
I counted off the houses on the side of the street facing me, starting with the closest to the gate. One, two, three, four. The house with the blue door.
The huge city gates opened with a loud clang.
It was the middle of the night. Only someone in a very high position could force the guards to let them in.
Three riders entered the city. All three rode Andikan warhorses, big, quick-footed, mean, with grullo coats that looked like gray smoke. The leading rider’s horse had a bald face, a white marking that covered the entire front of his head. It looked like he killed another horse and wore its skull as a helmet.
Everard. The Sleepless Duke, riding Villain, his war stallion. Crap.
They called him the Sleepless Duke because he ruled over a vast stretch of territory on the northern border and that territory was continuously raided by the aggressive nations from the northwest and the Crimson Empire from the east. The Selva Dukedom was always at war. Ramond vi Everard had picked up a sword at the age of three and never put it down, just as his father and mother before him. He was a violent isolationist, who responded to threats with overwhelming force and shocking brutality.
Of all the people to run into…
There was no place to hide. I flattened myself against the nearest house and looked down.
The riders bore down the street, their dark cloaks swallowing the light as if they had cut out pieces of the midnight sky and wrapped them around themselves.
Don’t notice me. Don’t see me.
Something monumental must’ve happened because Everard wasn’t allowed in the city without a royal invitation. Sauven Savaric, the current king of Rellas, feared him so much, it was almost a phobia.
Villain reached me. The size of this horse was truly shocking. I raised my head a fraction of an inch. The stallion glared at me with a bright blue eye, and I caught a glimpse of the rider, broad shoulders stretching his cloak, his hood hiding everything except for his clean-shaven square jaw.
I held my breath.
The riders passed me. The hoof steps scattered down the street, receding.
Okay, that was cool beyond all reason. Entirely too much excitement, very scary, but so freaking cool. I shivered. Wow. Okay, I needed to get inside now before anything else happened.
I pushed away from the building, crossed the street, took a deep breath, and knocked on the blue door.
I knocked louder.
A small window slid open in the door. The person on the other side stayed in the shadows.
“Bastien said you rent your rooms,” I said. Bastien ran the stables at the White Stag. This house was owned by the widow of his nephew.
“I have someone coming in tomorrow,” a woman said.
“I just need it for tonight. The place I was supposed to stay was sold out from under me.”
“It’s a den per night.”
I passed 2 dens through the window. “For your inconvenience. I need some food. Whatever you have. I’m not picky.”
Metal clung. The door swung open. A woman stood inside. She was about thirty, with pale skin and a coil of golden hair that rested on her head like a crown. Three months from now, a poor young noble would ride through the Bull Gate and rent a room here. He would fall in love with the widow, but he was impulsive and foolish, and a year later she would die in his arms, trying to keep him from being run through with a sword. They would kill him anyway.
The widow gave me a grim look. Behind her, a little girl in a plain white nightgown, not more than four or five, peeked at me from the stair landing. She would die too after the men who killed her mother set the house on fire.
“Come in,” the widow said.
I entered, and she closed the door and bolted it shut.
The woman glanced up at the landing. Her eyebrows came together, and the little girl scurried off. The widow turned left, into the kitchen, pulled a loaf of dense black bread from the basket, cut a thick slab, took a block of white cheese from an ice box, cut a slice of that, and handed me the giant cheese sandwich.
I forced myself to not snatch it out of her fingers and took it slowly. “Thank you.”
“Third floor,” she said. “The door has a bar on both sides. I’m going to lock you in.”
“Fine by me.”
I went up the stairs, trying to ignore the food in my hands. My mouth watered. We climbed to the third floor, to a sturdy wooden door with a thick bar across it. The widow unbarred the door and pushed it open, revealing a small room with a bed and a window by it, with cheap, murky glass. A second door, flimsy and narrow, stood open in the wall on the right, leading to a tiny bathroom with a wooden toilet.
“In you go. Remember, you have to be out in the morning.”
I stepped into the room. She shut the door, and I heard the bar slide into place.
I sat on the floor and attacked my food.
Month of Planter, Day 7
I was scared.
No, that wasn’t quite the right word. Scared was a word reserved for normal fear. I’m scared to speak in front of the class. I’m scared of staining my dress at Chipotle. What I felt was closer to raw, uncontrollable terror.
It started yesterday after I left the Three Moons. I had no doubt Solentine would have me followed, so I decided to swing back through the Dog Market on the way back to the bakers. I had taken my time meandering through Kair Toren, gawking at things, and trying to spot my tail.
Kair Toren was a riot of people, sounds, and color. Most buildings had thick walls, sturdy towers, and simple lines, but some were ornate and built in a completely different style. No half-timber houses, no Gothic architecture, none of those narrow, pointy flying buttresses that looked like they would poke your eye out.
The most common building material was a beautiful calico stone, a sandy beige with swirls of cinnamon and white curving through it, interrupted by an occasional façade of gray granite or pale, yellow limestone blocks. There was a surprising amount of glass – windows, street lanterns, signs, and decorative doohickies on top of some spires.
Countless people moved through it all, traders, shoppers, city guards, knights… I saw actual knights in armor. I had expected it to be clunky and rigid, but it was sleek and fitted and they moved in it as if they were wearing sweatpants. People carried swords and maces on their belts. Long cloaks draped shoulders. Women who weren’t in armor wore dresses and gowns in every color, actual gowns, and their hair was braided and styled with hair jewelry. Men out of armor preferred jerkins and tunics, although I saw a couple in robes. For a while, I just wandered about like a toddler at an amusement park, going, “Ooo, look at this.”
The city was real and alive. There were layers to it, accumulated over centuries as the country changed hands, each new owner leaving traces of their culture and language. I had never seen anything like it. The pretty parts of it were shockingly beautiful and the grim parts of it were revoltingly ugly. It was like someone turned a magical dial and punched the vibrancy and contrast way up.
Finally, I made it to the Dog Market and set about shedding my theoretical tail. I veered between the stalls, pushed my way through knots of people, and ducked into shops at random. After ambling past too many food stands, I bought two mushroom hand pies and a little basket to carry them in. I hadn’t eaten since morning, the freshly baked pies smelled delicious, and as I exited the market, I was concentrating hard on trying not to drool in public and almost walked into an atrocity.
It was so awful, so raw, that I froze. I should’ve kept walking, but instead I stood in the middle of the street, staring at it, inhaling the blood-tainted air, unable to turn away. Two guards stood by it, and they stared too. Even in Kair Toren, this was a horror.
I had read about it so many times, but never in my wildest nightmares did I ever think I would witness it. A stark reminder that in a few months, the man who ordered it done would drown the city in fire in his climb to the throne. I was looking at Kair Toren’s future.
I just stood and gaped, until the sound of creaking wheels startled me, loud like a gunshot. A third guard came up, pushing a cart. They began to load the body into it, and I took off down the street as fast as I could go.
Half an hour later, I made it to the bakery, said hello to my landlords, went to my room, and heard them bar the door from the outside. Then I washed my hands, poured myself some water from an ewer, and decided to eat my pies.
Except my hands shook so much, I had to put the pies down and crawl under the thin blanket on my bed to try and calm down.
I knew exactly what Solentine was capable of. Normal people had a circuit breaker that tripped and stopped them because some things were simply not done to fellow human beings. In some people, it malfunctioned, but in Solentine it was either permanently broken or didn’t get installed in the first place.
It was one thing when he was just a character on a page, and I could joke about him being my deeply damaged book boyfriend. It was another meeting him face to face.
I had just witnessed what happened to someone who crossed one of the Eight Families. And nobody cared. Nobody had lifted a finger. In a city of two hundred thousand people nobody dared to voice their outrage.
If Solentine wanted to get rid of me, there wouldn’t be any outrage either.
I never should have put myself into the Shears’ crosshairs. And if I had been in the right mind, that fact would’ve occurred to me, but after wandering around naked, starving, and dying, I desperately wanted a safe hole to hide in. This little room failed to deliver this safety. I had been laser focused on getting enough money to buy a house or at least rent a whole one.
Now, in addition to worrying about myself, I was worried about my landlords. If the Shears wanted to extract me, they would go through that nice couple like scissors through paper. Best case scenario, the bakers would sleep through my abduction or murder. Worst case scenario… Ugh.
I should’ve just sucked it up and laid low for several days, the way I’d originally planned. There was a reason why people advised against making life-altering decisions immediately after traumatic events.
The real problem was that I had no idea about the limitation of my resurrection powers. Could I come back if the Shears dismembered my body? Could I regenerate a cut off head? What if they killed me, weighed my body down, and threw it into the river like that poor corpse whose cloak I took? Would I just keep coming back to life and drowning over and over, unable to swim to the surface? What if I were buried? If I was buried in loose soil, I could conceivably dig myself out. I would likely die a few times from suffocation, but eventually I would claw my way to the surface. But what if they buried me in a coffin? Or walled me into a mausoleum? What if I was cremated?
What if my dead body was fed to pigs? I had watched a movie where the villain went into great detail about feeding corpses to pigs and not trusting a man who kept more than three pigs. Or was it four? Would I resurrect as sentient pig crap?
I didn’t know, and I did not want to experiment to find out.
After I spent the entire night tossing and turning and kicking the blanket, I woke up the next morning determined to fix the mess I had created for myself. I washed my face, brushed my teeth with a boar-bristled brush and tooth powder that tasted of baking soda and herbs, and then did a lot of thinking.
What was done was done. In a week I would have to interact with Solentine again to get my payment. I needed some way to lessen the danger of that encounter. I needed a bodyguard. Someone that the Shears would have a difficult time killing.
At his core, Solentine was an assassin. An exceptional assassin, true, but he relied a great deal on the element of surprise. I needed a warrior. Someone who could stand up to an assassin. Rellas was a place that valued martial skills. Finding a great swordsman wouldn’t be that difficult. But convincing them to work with me was a whole other story, which was why I got dressed, walked for half an hour, and then climbed the stairs of Taryz Teahouse all the way to the fourth floor.
The teahouses had come to Kair Toren almost three hundred years ago, when Dhonir, a small nation on the southern end of the continent, joined Rellas, becoming the Dhonir Duchy, to escape the aggression of a nearby warmongering nation. The teahouses were a staple of the city now and drinking tea had become the dominant way to hydrate. Boiling water was the simplest way to disinfect it, and tea leaves made it taste better.
Taryz Teahouse occupied a large, coveted plot in Golden Leaf, a neighborhood straddling the line between the middle-class district of the Fens and the affluent Anchor Drop estates to the west just across the Virka river. Golden Leaf was named for the beautiful maple trees that grew along the river and turned bright yellow in the fall. The further north you went, the more dangerous the streets became, but here the cobblestones were clean, and robberies were rare.
The first floor of Taryz Teahouse was two stories high and reserved for entertainment – dancers, musicians, and story tellers, who could be viewed from the ground floor and from the second-floor balcony running the length of the room. The second and third floors featured smaller rooms; quiet, elegant, and very private. It wasn’t uncommon for businessmen and nobles to meet in a teahouse to hammer out their deals. Plots were hatched in those rooms, and sometimes inconvenient people were quietly eliminated there, with the utmost discretion, of course. It was a more civilized type of murder.
The fourth floor consisted of a small room that opened to a large outdoor terrace. That’s where I went, followed by a polite server with a platter supporting a small tea kettle, a cup, and a little glass dish of honey. The Taryz Teahouse had never forgotten its roots, and the echo of its native Dhonir was everywhere – in the ornate stone rail of the terrace with protective symbols carved into the posts; in the metal windchimes shaped like strange animals tinkling gently in the wind; and in the long lengths of beautiful green fabric, draped at an angle over some tables to shield the patrons from the sun.
Right now, with the afternoon sky threatening rain again, the terrace was mostly empty, and I saw him right away, a man sitting alone at the table closest to the western rail. He would be drinking Thieves Tea, a strong smoky brew, although he was not a thief.
His build was obscured by his cloak, its fabric so faded, you could no longer tell its original color. The cloak’s thick hood was down, and another hood, a dark gray one, draped around his neck. It was called a lancer hood, and he could pull it up to cover his hair and the bottom of his face. Originally designed to shield the soldier from a particular style of helmet, it now functioned more like a medieval ski mask. He could pull it on, raise the hood of his cloak, and become completely unidentifiable.
The wind stirred his dark brown hair. His skin was an even light bronze, his face striking, with chiseled cheeks, a hard slash of a mouth, and a narrow nose. His eyes under thick dark eyebrows were light gray. The trait ran in his family.
His sword rested on the table. A simple wooden sheath, downcurved guard, a grip of reddish-brown leather, a blade that was about forty inches long, and most importantly, a small white pebble embedded in the round pommel. Everything checked out.
Everything except his face. He’d become a professional soldier at seventeen and served in the King’s army for twenty years, so he was at least thirty-seven, and the exact line in the book said, “A harsh life of battles and marches added years to his face. He looked like a man who was a decade older.”
The man in front of me was in his very early thirties at most. He didn’t look old enough to have a fifteen-year-old son.
I had about two seconds to decide what to do.
He had the sword. Nobody else would have this sword. Nobody else would be here, in this tea house, looking across the river at that house, and carrying this sword.
Don’t screw this up, don’t screw this up…
I walked over to his table and sat down across from him. He looked at me. No alarm in his eyes, no surprise. Only calm. His eyes were actually more green than gray, but that depended on lighting and clothes.
The server placed my teapot and my cup in front of me and departed with a soft smile.
I poured a cup of tea and glanced to my left. Virka River flowed past us, on its way to join Dokkon, the city’s main river, quarter of a mile to the southwest. Across the river the estates of Anchor Drop hugged the water, some with docks, others without, all wrapped in sturdy walls and sitting on about an acre or so each.
The estate directly across from us abandoned the walls completely. Instead, the entire house was a wall, a large square built with Kair Toren’s trademark swirly stone, three floors high and about sixty feet deep, with a courtyard in the center. A single short tower rose at the left corner of it. The first floor had no windows. The second and third floors had a few, but all of them were guarded by thick bars or shutters. No points of access. The only obvious door lay on the opposite side of the estate, facing the street.
The place was a fortress. It took safety to the next level, even by Kair Toren’s standards.
“If human suffering had color, that house would be churning with black and red,” I said.
The man across from me said nothing.
“The estate to the left is owned by a respected physician. The estate to the right belongs to a minor noble family. They think their neighbor is a trader, who has done well for himself. A good businessman, a bit reclusive, but pleasant. Nobody knows.”
He drank his tea. I sipped my brew. The black tea was aromatic and slightly floral, vanilla, lavender, a hint of citrus, and just a touch of bergamot. Any other time, I would have savored it. But I really needed this man on my side. If I could get him to help me, no swordsman in the entire city would be able to touch me. And he was giving no indication whether any of my words were landing.
“A thriving kingdom must always be at war,” I said. “That’s how it justifies and trains a professional army. These wars don’t have to be large. In fact, it’s better if they are not, and it’s best if they’re fought on foreign soil or at the frontier. The kind of conflict that doesn’t affect most of the kingdom and allows the citizens to ignore the fact that every day someone is dying on their behalf, for reasons most of the people involved do not understand or care about.”
“Of course, a professional army creates the problem of veterans. Highly skilled at warfare, great at surviving, and not always fit to reenter civilian life after all the blood and horrors they witness. A professional soldier with twenty years of experience is a living weapon that can be used against the state when hired by a rogue noble as a mercenary or incited to violence. The state must then find a way to anchor these veterans. They need an incentive to not become a destructive force.”
I poured another cup of tea. He hadn’t stabbed me yet. I took it as an encouraging sign.
“When a veteran reaches the eighteenth year of their twenty-year service, they are offered the Last Tour. It is a terrible tour of duty, in a place where the risks are high, and it usually lasts a full two years. If the veteran survives it, they are awarded a parcel of fertile land no less than one gere.”
About eight acres. Typically, near a forest with monsters or a border with a hostile nation, where the veterans could act as a buffer. Praemia militia, invented by Ancient Rome of our world for its legionnaires, never bested, often imitated, and eventually transformed by our modern government into the GI Bill. Instead of rewarding our veterans with a parcel of land, we sent them to college and hoped they would learn to cope.
“In addition to one gere of land, these veteran soldiers are also given the Green Purse, enough money to hire farmhands, obtain seed, purchase two oxen or a single horse, and work the farm for one year. They can become farmers, or sublet the land, or they can cash out. It’s a tempting proposition for a soldier with a family. A promise of a peaceful life.”
He refilled his cup. His face looked like it was carved from stone.
“So, a soldier takes that Last Tour. He survives against all odds and receives all that was promised. He returns to the city with his limbs and mind intact and discovers that the wife he left behind was murdered and his son has gone missing.”
Nothing. Not a hint of emotion. I was on very thin ice, and I could hear it cracking.
“He searches for his son and finds out that he was taken and sold by a slave monger who lives in an impenetrable fortress. He keeps looking for a way in but can’t find any, so every day he comes to the rooftop terrace of the local teahouse. He drinks the same tea he learned to enjoy during his first crusade, he watches, and he waits for fate to knock on his door.”
“And you would be fate?” he asked. His voice was a deep rasp. His eyes turned cold. Yep, he would kill me. I wasn’t getting off this terrace.
“No. I’m just a woman who made a deal with dangerous people. I get my payment in one week, and I need a bodyguard.”
Don’t babble. Babbling makes you appear nervous. Stay calm. Like an icicle. Think icy thoughts.
“Normally I would offer money.”
I couldn’t afford him because he wasn’t just a soldier. Reynald Karis was a blademaster, knighted at the age of seventeen for exceptional bravery and skill with a sword. I didn’t know if he was the best swordsman in the kingdom, but he was in the top five.
“But you don’t want money. You want Derog Olgren.”
“What kind of deal did you make? What is your profession?”
Lying of any sort would get me murdered. I could feel it emanating from him.
“I sell information. I know things. Surprising things, secret things, things I shouldn’t be aware of. Things people think are private and hidden.”
He tilted his head to the side. “Impress me.”
“You were in Gassargand, trying to take the city. You and three others scaled the First Wall and were running across an old aqueduct when the ground gave way. You fell into an underground chamber. It was old, older than the city. The only light came from the hole your bodies made as you tumbled down. There were tunnels leading from the chamber into the darkness.”
I was all out of tea, and my mouth was as dry as the Gassargand desert.
“A creature came out of the tunnels. It walked upright like a man, and it wore armor and carried a battle hammer, but it was covered with gray fur, eight feet tall, and its head was the head of a monster. It smashed Mertio’s skull with a single blow, and you saw his head crack like a broken egg. The three of you fought it until the mortar bombardment resumed, and the sounds of explosions drove it back into the darkness.”
“We used to tell that story at every campfire for two years afterward,” he said.
“I’m not finished. Of the four of you, Mertio was the youngest. He was barely into his second year, but he was good with a spear and brave. He reminded you of your son, and you used to look out for him. You ended that day on the Second Wall, and when everyone went down for the night, exhausted and nursing their wounds, you snuck back to the aqueduct to get Mertio’s crest off his body so his family would have something to bury. You tied a rope around an old stone pillar and dropped into that hole without a torch, carrying only your swords. Mertio’s body was gone, so you walked the tunnels in darkness until you found the creature and its siblings eating Mertio’s corpse, and you killed the three of them in a room with a statue of a bronze god with a bloated stomach.”
He stared at me. As far as I knew, he’d never told anyone about it.
“Is it magic?”
“Then what is it?”
“One day, if we become friends, I might explain.”
The intensity in his eyes made his gaze difficult to hold. “Do you know where my son is?”
I frowned. “No. I have a guess.”
“Tell me.” His voice was almost a growl.
“There is a boy in the Knight Order of the Redeemer with the gift of farseeing. He is the right age, and he has blue-black hair like your wife and your eyes. He was rescued by a group of knights from slave traders in the wilderness. But the boy lost his memory. They call him Syllind, Redeemer’s chosen. He answers to Lin.”
It was the oldest literary device in existence – surprise amnesia. The books never confirmed Lin’s parentage, but it would have to be a cosmic coincidence for him not to be Reynald’s son. The gift of farseeing was very rare.
I had many favorite characters, but I always felt for Reynald the most. He’d spent his life serving the country. In return, his wife was murdered, and his son was stolen by slavers. Despite all of it, Reynald tried to do the right thing till the very end. He’d suffered for it, and eventually it would kill him. Kair Toren didn’t do easy deaths. His would be horrible.
The blademaster stood up and leaned onto the stone rail, his palms planted on it, his gaze fixed on the house.
“Redeemer’s chosen,” Reynald said. His voice was suffused with menace. I almost scooted back in my chair.
The dominant religion in Kair Toren revolved around the One, a genderless benevolent supreme being. Their theological doctrine held that worshipping the One directly was impossible, since no human could comprehend the eternity of the One in its entirety. Instead, the faithful worshiped Aspects of the One, and they were always identified by their actions: Defender, Castigator, Healer, Justice and so on.
There were three prominent Knight Orders in the kingdom. Of them, the Order of the Redeemer was the newest and the smallest. They were big on renouncing your old, wretched existence and seeking redemption through a life of service, specifically martial service. The best comparison would be the Foreign Legion, but wrapped in religion, with a big chip on their shoulder, and actual magic powers.
“Getting into the Redeemer Tower will be very difficult,” I warned. “They guard their squires, especially the ones with magic, with extreme prejudice. It will take someone with a great deal of influence to get us in.”
The Redeemers overreacted to any perceived slight, and trying to take away one of their squires wouldn’t go over well. Even Reynald, with all his skill, might not make it out of the Tower alive.
“As of now, I don’t see any opportunity to reach your son. Instead, I can give you Derog Olgren. I can’t guarantee a reunion, but I can help you with your revenge.”
He turned to me. “What’s your name?”
He didn’t look impressed. I felt the need to add something more.
“Maggie the Undying.”
Reynald gave me a look. He was clearly skeptical.
“Fine, Maggie the Undying. Get me into that house, and I will protect you.”
“It’s a deal.”
Reynald looked back to Derog’s fortress. “There are at least eight guards in the house at all times. One door leading from the street to the courtyard, one door leading from the courtyard inside. Both are reinforced, guarded, and alarmed.”
“Three,” I said.
His eyebrows crept up.
“There is a basement level escape passage with a hidden door that comes out near the dock. Derog uses it to ship the slaves by river when his usual route is compromised. The passage branches off into two hallways. One corridor leads to the basement, where the kids are held. It’s protected by a door that’s barred from the passageway side. The other corridor leads up the stairs to the kitchen and serves as Derog’s escape route. The slaves never enter that part of the house, and he doesn’t want to be hindered by dealing with additional doors in an emergency, so it’s a straight shot.”
Reynald studied the opposite shore.
“The door is reinforced,” I told him. “You would need a battering ram, so breaking it isn’t an option.”
“Do you have a plan?” His voice told me that he clearly didn’t think I had a plan, and if I did have one, it was probably stupid.
“Yes. You’re going to sell me to Derog, and I’ll take it from there.”
A hint of steel flashed in his eyes. “And you were doing so well up until this point. The answer is no. Out of the question. First, you are too old. Derog deals in children and adolescents. Second, you will be raped, beaten, and worse.”
“Trust me. He’ll buy me, and I’ll stay safe. I have an asset that Derog is looking for.”
He was looking at me like I had lost my whole bag of marbles. “What asset is that?”
I gave him a big, bright smile.