“You broke my table,” said Nicolina.
Azalea cringed before the guildmaster’s imposing desk, head kept low and contrite, hands clasped behind her back. The silence of Nicolina’s study was no longer a comfort, but a threat.
“I’m terribly sorry, Guildmaster,” Azalea said hesitantly. “I have no excuses.”
From her perch on her resplendent chair, Nicolina folded her hands together. “There’s no need for any. I’ve already collected the witness statements, and they were clear enough.”
Witness statements! The blood drained from Azalea’s face, leaving her cheeks stiff and cold. Nicolina was compiling the investigation and acquiring evidence. Azalea was going to be sent to a tribunal. She would be tried for her terrible misconduct and crime of property destruction, relieved from duty, and imprisoned for fifty years for her gross offenses against the nation. Oh, her fears had been well-founded.
“Wipe that look off your face, Fairwen, you’re not going to a tribunal.”
Azalea’s jaw slackened. “How…?”
“You might as well be a signpost. Every thought is stamped right on your face.” Nicolina sighed. “Don’t worry too much about it. A day hasn’t gone by without one of my Hunters breaking something. I just take it out of their stipend and leave it at that.”
“Oh,” Azalea said faintly. Then Wes had been correct. “So—so that’ll be, um…”
“A month of docked pay? Two?” She paled. “A year?”
Nicolina balked. “Mythics, Fairwen, what do you think our tables are made of, solid gold? We’ll just get another one from the carpenter.”
“Yes, oh.” Nicolina shook her head. “I want you to realize something, Fairwen.”
Azalea raised her chin. “Of course. I’ll never act so shamefully ever again.”
“Wha—no. Myths, child, am I really that imposing?”
Azalea chose to say nothing in response.
Nicolina’s grey eyes softened. “What I want you to realize, Fairwen, is that I’m on your side.”
Your side. The words felt so strange to Azalea’s ears. Foreign, yet warm. A lovely piece of comfort that she didn’t expect from a woman known as the Thumb.
“I want my Hunters to succeed,” Nicolina continued. “You’re a good soldier with a good heart. Not even your little toe belongs in a tribunal, I know that much. So please, don’t look at me like I’m going to eat you. I’m here to support the guild, not to destroy it.”
Azalea stared at the guildmaster, eyes wide and a little watery. Nicolina’s face was open and honest, every word from her grounded in a sincere tone that could not be mistaken.
And I doubted her, she thought hazily. I doubted someone who stayed this humble when she is, as a High Magistrate, one of the most powerful people in the country.
She felt a trickle of shame, but more than that, she felt awe.
“You have such a kind and beautiful soul,” she said softly. “I don’t think the guild could be any more fortunate to have you as its guildmaster.”
Nicolina blinked. “The hell? You’ll make me blush, Fairwen.”
“But it’s true.”
“Alright, sweet-talker.” Nicolina made a shooing motion with her hand, but she was smiling. “Get outta here while I piece the tableware back together.”
Azalea saluted and softly shut the door behind her. She stared blankly at the smooth panels of wood for a moment, her mind fuzzy but slowly stirring.
Nicolina hadn’t seemed like the stern, imperious guildmaster who’d tried to turn Wes away. She’d been akin to a grandmother, or a grumpy aunt: firm but approachable, tough but kind, a quirky hint of humor that would make the children smile.
She had seemed like a friend.
Absently, Azalea drifted to the refreshments table by the wall. She poured herself a cup of warm milk and stirred in a spoonful of chocolate, letting the drink take on a dark, luxurious hue.
She should have trusted the guildmaster. She should have trusted the guild. They all had their secrets and agendas, but in the end, the establishment had defended the country for centuries. And every guild member, no matter how eccentric or secretive, bore that weight in their own way.
Next time, she would choose to trust Nicolina.
But she would still scold her if she tried to take Wes away.
Azalea cast her gaze around the tavern for a seat. The crowd had thinned considerably since the night she’d burst in, screaming for reinforcements; perhaps they were at the smithies, checking on their equipment before the surge. She recognized the towering bear-man, hunched over a table with a hand of cards. He raised his flagon in her direction with a bushy grin.
Oh no, he acknowledged her. Courtesy dictated that she should sit at his table and make small talk. But even if he seemed to be a warm person, he was very large and a bit scary, and she wasn’t ready to talk after embarrassing herself in front of the guild.
Azalea ducked her head apologetically and scoured the other tables before he could approach her. She nearly jumped when she caught a familiar flare of plum-pink from the corner of her eye. Karis Caelute sat alone at a table, casually sipping a cup of tea as if she were attending a garden party.
Azalea quickly strode to her and almost fell over in a hasty curtsy. “Lady Karis! What brings you here?”
Karis lowered her cup. “Good evening, Fairwen,” she said. She nodded at the chair beside her. “Please, sit.”
Azalea sat. A bit too quickly, perhaps, because she bumped her knee hard into the table. She hissed quietly as she set down her hot chocolate.
“It seems that your hunt went well,” Karis said.
Azalea straightened. “Thanks to you. I mean, the First Hunter. But it was—it was you, really, you’re the one who enlisted his help.” She swallowed. “I know it…was a little hard, maybe, given how much you hate him.”
“I don’t hate Yuden,” Karis said, looking genuinely surprised.
Azalea blinked. “Really?”
“Of course not. We may not see eye to eye on…anything, really. But that does not mean I hate him.”
“Oh,” Azalea said, slumping back against her chair, relieved—
“Hate would imply that his skylarking is worth my concern,” Karis said. “Which it is not.”
“But that is not limited to Yuden.” Karis tilted her head. “I simply prefer not to grow too attached to any of my colleagues.”
“Oh,” Azalea whispered. She remembered the scented candle burning away on Nicolina’s desk, rosehip and juniper. “Because they…they could…”
“Because more often than not, they are insufferable.” She raised her teacup in a mock toast. “It is part of a Hunter’s charm and prerogative, I think. You should attempt it yourself.”
“Not growing attached?”
“Being insufferable.” She smiled.
Azalea blinked. She opened her mouth, then closed it. She sipped at her hot chocolate, a luxuriously tender coat on her tongue. Then she opened her mouth again.
“But you’re not insufferable,” she said. “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
Surprisingly, a warm, light pink sprinkled over Karis’s cheeks. She cleared her throat and waved a hand idly. “Oh, well. Give it time,” she said. “You’ll see, I think, how mercenary we all can be.”
Azalea fell quiet. Perhaps that was what most people thought. Perhaps the average bystander would see that Karis rarely frequented the guild, note her presence on this particular day, and think to themselves, Ah, she’s here to cast lots for the First Hunter’s rank. But Azalea would never consider that. Not from Karis, who’d spent an entire precious day helping a completely new Hunter with nothing to offer in return. She hadn’t even asked for a cut of the kill credit.
Karis suddenly straightened, a knowing smile curling her lips. “Ah, look. The hero of the hour.”
Azalea turned just as the door to the guild flung open, hitting the wall with a sharp crack. A mass of blood-speckled blue pushed through the doorway. Silence descended sharply over the room as all eyes turned to the newcomer.
Lord Halcyon. He was alive. Not unhurt, but well enough to walk. A heavy weight dropped from Azalea’s shoulders.
After a momentary pause, the Hunters returned to their conversations, and the steady tavern’s hubbub rose once more. It was nothing special, apparently, for a Hunter to step into the guild soaked in blood. Azalea wondered if they would even react to a corpse thrown in their midst.
Even Karis sipped mildly at her tea, as if visitors were always dripping blood all over the floor. “Well?” she said to Halcyon. “Did you have fun?”
Halcyon stared at her from beneath blood-slick hair. Then he grunted and vanished into the medical ward.
Karis lowered the cup, tracing its rim with a delicate finger. There was a light frown on her lips.
Azalea turned to Karis. “Is he alright?”
“Yes,” said Karis.
Azalea heard the note of hesitation in her voice, even before Karis pushed away her tea and slid to her feet.
“I’m off to tease him,” she said smoothly. “It’s not every day a Hunter suffers injuries from an ordinary human.”
There was no bite in her words. Azalea watched as she glided into the medical ward.
Karis had been in Thom’s study more often than she would have liked to admit. She was intimately familiar with the shelves of neatly labeled herbs, the soft shift of laundered linen, the clean scent of lemon and paper. Despite the pristine smell and the ominous examination table in the center, Thom had done his best to make the room feel like a homey apothecary. Framed paintings decorated the walls, flowers dressed the windowsills, and propped on his desk was a childlike charcoal scribble of something that was probably supposed to resemble him, but looked more like a plucked chicken—no doubt the charmingly terrible work of his charming and terrible younger sister.
Karis nodded briefly at Thom in greeting as she stepped into the room, then looked at Halcyon. The First Hunter was already seated on the examination table, mana inhibitors clasped on his arms.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” he said dryly.
The corner of Karis’s mouth eased, just a bit. At least he had the energy for wisecracks.
“A mistake, I believe,” she said, and arched a brow. “But not mine.”
He scoffed slightly, then winced. Karis’s gaze dipped to his ribs, but there was nothing torn or frayed on his brocaded tunic. A cold prickle crawled up her neck.
Halcyon never entered the medical ward. Not unless he was approaching death’s door. He had his excuses—Thom never sleeps, Nicolina’s overreacting, others need it more—but she knew what it really came down to. Pride. Because she was the same way. Both of them hated to acknowledge when something was powerful enough to wound them. Hated to acknowledge that they were only human, fallible and fellable.
For Halcyon to have shown pain, it must have been crippling indeed.
And for his pain to have been crippling when his physical symptoms were, for the most part, tame—
—well, that just left mana corruption. A slow, crawling, incurable death from the inside out.
Karis settled in a nearby chair and crossed one leg over the other. Her gaze was cold as she tapped a finger on the armrest.
“How strong was he?” she said.
“Strong,” Halcyon replied.
Karis held back a grimace. “Stronger than you?”
“More reckless,” Halcyon said flatly. “Nearly blew us both to hell.”
She glanced at Thom, who was utterly silent, eyes shut, too immersed in the biological world of blood and bone to heed any of their conversation. There was no flicker of dismay on the doctor’s face—but then again, there rarely was.
Her gaze returned to Halcyon. He returned it evenly, waiting.
“I imagine it left a pretty mess,” Karis said softly.
“Wouldn’t call it pretty.”
“You seem mostly untouched, at the least.” There. Her question, at last. Albeit wrapped in a challenge.
Surprise flickered over Halcyon’s face, and she wondered if he’d seen past her—past the barbed words they always shared. Then his expression flattened.
“Sorry,” he said. “You’ll have to be Second Rank for a while longer.”
Nothing serious, then. Whatever his problem, it would not take his life. Karis rose to her feet, allowing no emotion to bleed through her features.
“Then hope for a swift recovery,” she said liltingly. “Before I overtake you.”
“You’re welcome to try,” Halcyon said.
Oh, his injuries were less than serious. They were absolutely trivial.
She looked at him with a flicker of irritation and a sugar-sweet smile. “Is that a challenge I hear, Hal?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he said flatly.
“You should,” she said, turning the door. “Or you lack imagination.”
She just laid her fingers on the handle when Halcyon stopped her in her tracks with a soft, even tone.
“I’ve never fought someone like him, Karis. Someone who cared so little about their life. If you run into him, don’t make that mistake. He goes straight for the kill and damns the consequences.”
Karis opened her mouth to say something. Something arrogant, possibly, and something she would certainly regret later, like I don’t make mistakes.
A boon, then, that in that exact moment, the sky outside shattered into bits of prismatic light.
The mana lamps flickered, the distant bell tower gave a low, resonant toll, and the door of the study burst open with little regard for privacy. In stormed Guildmaster Nicolina, the very picture of livid fury with rosy cheeks and thunderous brows, crimson cloak rippling behind her like a river of blood.
“Really, Yuden?” she snapped, her nostrils flaring. “Right before a surge?”
Halcyon quickly moved to stand in respect, but flinched and hissed through his teeth. Thom shot him a dour glare and forced him to sit back down, muttering a dark Don’t move unless you don’t want your ribs anymore.
Karis’s brows knitted together. In a way, it was her fault that he was incapacitated. She was the one who had fed him the tip and asked him to look after Azalea. “Guildmaster, the hunt was executed without flaw,” she said smoothly. “It was merely the unexpected presence of the Dragon Whisperer—”
“Don’t,” Nicolina snarled. “I don’t want excuses, Caelute, I want my first two Hunters in one piece during a surge for once. Why is it always you two? Why?”
Karis was not cowed. “If the Whisperer is pushing inland, and had the gall to attack a Hunter—this may just be his way of declaring war. It was important that Hal incapacitated him so he could not destroy a town.”
“The Whisperer could have destroyed the royal convoy, and until this surge is over and done, it is not our problem.”
Nicolina’s ruddy face began to pale, drawing out into a long, weary look. “Observatorium says the epicenter is right on the Midsummer Parallel.”
Karis stiffened. Thom looked up from his work, his brows carved in a grim line. Even Halcyon seemed stunned, lips parted on an ordinarily stony face.
“So close,” Karis said softly.
“Basically on the capital’s doorstep.” Nicolina rubbed at her temples. “And we have a bunch of idiot nobles who are dispatching their private companies to the inland towns, like Maple Point and Grimwall. Because those are supposed to be such safe, easy pickings, you know. But this time around, I think inland will be seeing Class Fours.”
Halcyon grimaced. “That far inland is getting close to the capital.”
“At least it’s closer to the Garrison.” Nicolina folded her arms. “But yes, we’re running out of places to evacuate people. Those towns have significant populations.”
“The larger towns have made underground shelters,” Karis offered. “The citizens could hide there.”
Nicolina nodded. “If we can secure the territory before they’re trapped and starve to death. For that, we’ll need every fighter we can get.” She sighed and looked morosely to the door. “We don’t have enough Hunters for this.”
“Put me down for something,” Halcyon said. “I can keep going.”
Nicolina glared at him. “Like hell you can. You must be dry as a desert.”
“I can manage something simple,” Halcyon said firmly. “Twos. Maybe a Three.”
Nicolina looked at Thom, who only sighed.
“Cracked ribs, dislocated shoulder, concussion, overburn fatigue, blood loss,” the doctor said. “I’ve set the shoulder, patched up the emergencies, and applied poultices. I could regen him further, but—”
“Not with the surge,” Nicolina said, and Thom nodded reluctantly. The guild’s medical staff needed to conserve every scrap of mana possible for the litany of bodies that poured through the door after a surge.
“He’s going to ignore my advisory and your orders anyway, Lina, so might as well send him out,” Thom said wryly.
Nicolina threw her hands in the air. “Unbelievable. That eager to put a candle on my desk, Yuden?”
“Make it smell like the ocean,” Halcyon said.
“I’ll make it smell like sewage.” But the fight left her shoulders, and she only sighed and rubbed at her eyes. “Fine. Report for your assignment following this check-up. But when this is all over, Yuden, you’d better march your ass to bed and stay there, or I’ll remove it from your body. Are we clear?”
He inclined his head. “Yes, ma’am.”
Nicolina scowled and turned out of the room. “Caelute. You’re with me.”
Karis glanced at Halcyon, unsure what parting words to share. A jest to lighten the mood, an apology for pinioning his wings, a word of gratitude for looking after Azalea. He caught her gaze, and for a moment, she thought she saw a flicker of emotion in his eyes. Then it was gone. She was staring at the enigmatic surface of the waves.
He jerked his chin at the door. “Go ahead. Nicolina doesn’t seem to be in a patient mood.”
Karis cleared her throat lightly. “Don’t be rash tonight, Yuden. Take care.”
“Is that concern I hear, Caelute?”
She looked away. “I simply don’t wish for the guild to smell like sewage.”
She did not wait for a response. She quickly strode out of the study, putting the exchange out of her mind. She did not want to return to an ocean-blue candle burning its final embers.