A minute spent in a shaerdanian tavern is a minute too long. I motion for Finn to fall behind as the creaky door slams closed, leaving us in the loud, crowded, lantern-lit room. We garner a few glances, but most turn back to their cups. Only a one-eyed cat perched atop an ale barrel keeps my younger brother and me in its sights. I don’t mind the surly types who hang around these places, the wenches with their skirts tied up and colorful shifts showing, and the bawdy songman accompanied by a guitar-plucking fellow. All are rightly pissed—?eyes blurry, smiles toothy, and voices gratingly bright. It’s the smell that gets me every time. The rain in Shaerdan makes scents stronger. Makes taverns a pungent mix of moldy floor planks, vinegar, and fermented despair.
I hold my breath and slide a folded piece of parchment into the pocket on my belt. Finn watches me. He’s seen me pull it out more than a few times in the last month. Probably noticed the action has increased the farther we’ve traveled from Malam.
He knows not to mention it.
Finn and I walk through the tavern and sit at the bar. After the long night and half day of riding, it’s good to rest. If I dropped my forehead into my hands, I’d be asleep in a blink. Tempting if we weren’t so close to the end of the hunt. And if we weren’t still on Shaerdan soil, where being identified as a Malamian will get you gutted. A vision of a pale blond, freckled girl with a smile that has to be earned spurs me on, pierces me with longing.
A card game plays out on the nearest table, Shaerdanian silvers piled high enough to entice hungry onlookers. Pushing away the fatigue, I sit taller. Force my hands to relax, one resting over my left trouser pocket full of coins. My other hand is splayed on the bar. I fight to look the part in this tavern. Mistakes cannot happen today, not when we’re so close to finding Lord Jamis’s mistress.
The barkeep is a big man, no taller than me, but thicker through the gut like he’s packing a barrel of ale. Busy talking to patrons, he gives no heed to Finn or me. Typical tavern kinsmen. They love their gossip as much as a Malamian market-goer.
I scowl in the man’s direction and rap my knuckles on the tacky surface of the bar.
“Coming, coming,” the barkeep grumbles. He moves in front of me, arms resting on the bar between us. His eyes, yellowed whites surrounding black irises, take in my little brother and me. “What’ll ya have?”
This town, Rasimere Crossing, in the remote southern plains of Shaerdan, isn’t one I’ve been to before. Since both countries backed down from the war, tension is mountain high. Harder to navigate too. Hardly a contact in Shaerdan will speak to me without drawing a sword. Yesterday, a barkeep up north confirmed that Lord Jamis’s mistress, Phelia, was only a half day ahead of us and headed here. Within days after Jamis’s arrest, the high lord had squawked about the Spiriter’s identity. Course, it took a bit of Omar’s torture to get it out of him.
It’s not uncommon for noblemen at court to have mistresses. The women keep to themselves. For this reason, I doubt anyone would’ve thought her a threat. Especially since association with a high nobleman comes with some protection. Still, it’s not a mistake that I, or the few men who know the harm the Spiriter inflicted, will make again.
As soon as she was identified, King Aodren sent me after her. I’ve followed Phelia’s trail across Malam and into the dangers of Shaerdan. And now, finally, Siron’s speed has bought us enough time to cross paths.
The bloody hunt’s had me noosed for a month. That’s a month longer than I’ve wanted to be gone from Brentyn and Britta. And damn if I haven’t felt off the entire time we’ve been apart. Like distance has set me adrift.
Today the hunt ends.
Most barkeeps won’t suffer a man who’ll fill a chair and not pay to fill a cup or four. Even so, I’ve no time for primer drinks. “We’re looking for our mother, who came south to find work.” In a Shaerdanian lilt, I go on with the fib, explaining that we’re soldiers returning from the war—?or almost war since it ended a little over a month ago, before it officially began. “Light brown hair, blue eyes, about this tall. Goes by the name Phelia.” I hold my hand up, providing the description that the castle attendants gave me. “Seen anyone like that?”
The man pushes his tongue into the side of his cheek and then slides it over half-blackened teeth. “Aye. Perhaps.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Yeah. Might’ve seen someone matching that description earlier.”
“How long ago?” Finn cuts in. I shoot him a look. His Shaerdanian accent wouldn’t fool a deaf goat. Told him as much in the last town.
The barkeep doesn’t seem to notice. He plunks a couple mugs on the counter. “Before we get too chatty, let me get you fellas a drink.”
It’s a fight to keep the easy smile on my face, knowing he likely holds information about Phelia. My hand shifts to my belt, to cover the parchment hidden in the leather. The motion usually centers me.
“Or, if you’re aiming to take off sooner . . .” The man taps a glass on the counter. “You can pay for a drink and leave with some answers.”
Right. Should’ve thrown money at him in the first place. I withdraw some coins, dropping them to plink on the wood. “Good enough?”
“Cohen.” Finn’s sharp whisper snags my attention. He reaches for the coins.
The man’s fist slams Finn’s hand flat against the bar.
My brother yelps.
Confused, I shove my chair back and lean into the barkeep’s face. “Get your hand off my brother.”
The music stops. Every eye in the tavern cuts to us. A few men rise to their feet.
“No Shaerdanian would pay with Malam coins,” the barkeep says.
My jaw ticks, insides seizing like Siron’s kicked me in the gut.
“You think I’m one of those scrants?” I spit, leaning heavily into a Shaerdanian accent that sounds loud but flat in the silent room.
Finn’s eyes volley around the tavern and back to his trapped hand. The kid hides his panic as well as a tabby cat in a wolf den.
“Your brother looks like he’s about to toss his last meal. Doesn’t seem s...