26. Grimwall (1)

The rain was falling hard.

The weight of it dragged at Azalea’s cloak, drummed on her shoulders, tightened around her neck. She ignored it and swooped into Grimwall with a brush of her windsoles, adrenaline building a quiet tickle in her veins.

Despite its somber name, Grimwall had overcome its tumultuous and violent past as a war outpost, blossoming into one of the larger towns of Airlea. Mana-rich soil from its close proximity to a leyline vastly accelerated its luxury crops, like sugar and cocoa and wheat. Had Azalea visited during a peaceful harvest season, she would have found the streets bustling with endless stalls of pastry chefs in the town’s annual Baking Fest.

But on this day, the town was dark and quiet, save for a few lit braziers by a small encampment just within chipped limestone walls.

Soldiers in armored livery, the Geppett leaf crest emblazoned on their tabards, were gathered in orderly rank and file. At their head stood Wes, dressed in ceremonial armor with an elaborate cloak denoting him as a leader—a target. Out in the open, distinct and vulnerable.

He had to get to safety, no matter the cost.

Azalea landed decisively before Wes’s company. Their number was smaller than she was expecting. Thirty pikemen, fourteen archers, four gunmen with starshooters. The two final soldiers had rich blue cloaks that set them apart as field doctors; they would use mana inhibitors and regen to quickly mend their company.

Lastly, Azalea looked to the commander. If Wesley Geppett was surprised to see her, he hid it well. His eyes fell on her with a measured and distant chill, his face unreadable. He was handsome and untouchable, adorned in exquisite armor and his gallant suit.

“Lady Fairwen,” he said with a polite nod. “I was not expecting a Hunter.”

Azalea wanted to grip his hands and pull him away, to the workshop, to safety. But she stood straight-backed and aloof, careful not to betray any connection to the heir apparent of the Geppett estate.

“Lord Geppett,” she greeted. She cast her eyes over the small ranks of soldiers. “And your company, I presume.”

There was no awe or adoration written over their faces. Instead, the soldiers eyed her warily, a hostile tint in their sharp eyes.

“Look, a Hunter,” one of them muttered. “We’re saved. Glory be.”

Wes looked at him silently, and he quieted. Then Wes turned back to Azalea.

“To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?” he asked mildly.

“I bring urgent tidings regarding the surge,” Azalea said. She subtly glanced at a square tent—the tactics tent, small, but with a hide thick enough to offer some privacy.

Wes’s expression did not change, but she knew he understood. He nodded brusquely at his company. “At ease. I will return shortly.”

“Take your time, captain,” said one of the soldiers, his voice touched with mockery.

Such insolence. Azalea’s fingers fluttered instinctively to her sword, even as she sternly told her arm to keep still. This was Wes’s unit, and he would manage it in his own way.

Wes did not acknowledge the slight. He only turned and strode into the tactics tent as if nothing had been said at all. Azalea stifled the urge to shoot a petty glare at the offending soldier and followed him inside.

The flap swished shut behind her, and the air changed.

When Wes turned to her, the brown in his eyes had melted back to that familiar gentle amber. He reached out and touched her cheek, worry drawing a line between his brows. Azalea exhaled to see it, the tightness in her ribs easing.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” Wes said. The tent’s dim candlelight cast a warm glow on his face. “Is everything alright?”

Yes, Azalea thought dazedly, feeling his tender thumb on her cheek. Then sharply: No, no. Nothing is alright.

The next is Grimwall, and many will die, sang Echo’s voice in her head. Die, die. Many will die.

“Wes,” she said urgently, reaching up and clasping his extended hand. “The epicenter of this surge—it’s on the Midsummer Parallel.”

Wes’s expression shifted. “What?”

She pulled him towards the tent flap, as if that would usher him to safety. “You have to leave. Leave, now. Take your company, evacuate as many people as you can—just get out.”

Wes stood for a moment, stunned. His gaze turned distant as he extracted his hand from her grasp.

“The Midsummer Parallel,” he breathed. He turned to the map. “They’ll be coming primarily from the southwest, then.”

“Yes,” said Azalea. “I recommend you leave out the east gate.”

Wes shook his head. “It’s too late for that. We won’t get to Mythaven in time, and my company is too small to defend that kind of convoy. We’d be sitting ducks lining up on the road.”

“Then—to Maple Point,” Azalea provided. “Lady Karis is overseeing that area.”

“Maple Point…to the northwest.” He looked at the map again. “Then we can expect the northwest to be mostly secure.”


He began to pace slowly. “Forces can concentrate at the southern gate. We can call the militia, get them crossbows and…yes, quicklime. Grimwall should have plenty of fuel with such a large deposit of limestone nearby. And those with spears—they can serve as the parapet guard against fliers and climbers.”

Those were not the words of someone preparing to flee. Azalea’s fingers went stiff and her throat went cold.

“You’re staying,” she whispered disbelievingly.

Wes glanced at her, his mind still halfway in planning. “Of course,” he said absently.

Azalea gripped his face and forced him to look at her. She saw the spark of surprise in his gaze, and all his attention swiveled to her.

“Wes.” She struggled to suck in a breath. “Please, don’t. Please. You could die.”

For a moment, Wes was silent. He leaned so slightly into her palm, his cheek a velvet heat in her hand, eyelids sliding shut, like he wanted to stay there forever. But when his eyes opened again, the amber flecks in them were immovable, ancient roots.

“I won’t leave the townspeople in their shelters,” Wes said. “And I won’t leave you to fight alone.”

The next would be Grimwall, many would die, Wes could die, but somehow, it felt like everything would be alright. Azalea fell into his gaze and her heartbeat slowed like the languid tempo of the deep forest. The scent of sweet grass swelled in her lungs.

“We’re going to do this together.” Wes reached up and squeezed her hand. “Watch my back, ’Zalie?”

She would never deny him anything. “Of course.”

He gave a ragged little smile and pulled away. “Good. Then I guess we’d better get moving.”

“What will you do?”

“Prepare what little we can,” he said, pushing out of the tent, “and brief my men. I guess they’ll finally have something to do.”

Azalea had been here before. At Wes’s side, beneath a thundering sky, facing death’s advance with nothing but a sliver of hope.

She remembered gathering in central Mythaven with a few other handpicked students from the Academy: winners of the school-wide sparring tournaments and top scorers of the exams and manacrafters in the ninety-ninth percentile. Sending students was dangerous enough; the Academy had made certain that the junior unit would suffer as few casualties as possible by compiling only the best of the best.

The rain had been heavy then, too. Fat, cold droplets of water thundered down from the sky, pounding the cobbled roads like war drums. The standard-issue Academy uniform did nothing to shield Azalea from the weather. She fought back a shudder, but it was hard to stay still with the adrenaline racing in her blood. And there was also the low rumble of collapsing buildings and the sharp snap of flinging spells in the distance—a dirge promising chaos and misery to come.

Is this the night I die? A foolish, useless thought, but it tumbled over and over in her mind like a loose wheel. Is this the night I die? Is this the night? Will I die?

Before her, Wes turned to face the band of students. His mouth was set in a hard line that didn’t fit with the rest of his gentle features. The icy rain was coming down in sleets, pelting his face in an unforgiving current, but he held his gaze, upright and firm and nearly unblinking.

“We have one job,” he said grimly. “Hold the line. The Hunters are running dry, and they need rest. We’re reserve troops to fill the gaps until they come back.”

His grip tightened on his sword—handsome silver, crossguard twining like leaves, blade engraved with pale blossoms. It seemed to glow in the stark, stormy night, a lone star among thunderclouds.

“Mythaven doesn’t need heroes tonight,” Wes said. “She needs a wall. So stay alive. If one inch of the wall falls, then the whole thing is breached. Don’t go out there, don’t do anything crazy. Hold the line. Understood?”

“Yes sir,” said Azalea, and the rest of the company with her in sharp chorus. It was easier to focus when he displayed so much courage.

“Good,” said Wes. There was a crack of colored lightning, a smattering of iridescent sparks. He turned to the harbor and drew his sword. “We’ll be standing side by side, but think in pairs. There will be fliers, so one should take frontline, the other ranged.”

His eyes turned on Azalea, and—perhaps by trick of the light—she saw the colors of his irises flicker.

“Cadet Fairwen, you’re with me,” he said briskly. “We’re taking point.”

Azalea started. She couldn’t fathom a captain heading up the frontlines. No, more than that: Wes was a Geppett, a precious son of one of the highest ranking noble families in Airlea.

“That makes no sense,” she said, then quickly, “sir. As the commanding officer and the point of morale, it’s imperative for you to keep distance. You have the starshooter, sir, and—I think it should be put to use.”

“That it should,” Wes said softly.

And he unslung the beautiful starshooter from his back, pressing its body of gold-plated alloy into Azalea’s hands.

“You’re twice the shot I’ll ever be,” he said. “This belongs to you.”

Azalea gasped. The weight of the starshooter bore down on her hands, thick and heavy as if he’d just handed her a brick of gold. It probably had cost a brick of gold, and was a personal possession of the Geppett family besides.

“I couldn’t, sir, please, I can’t,” she fumbled. “This doesn’t—it’s yours, I don’t deserve—”

“There’s no one I trust more.” Wes’s voice was sure and steady as an oaken tree. Then it softened. “Watch my back, ’Zalie?”

Azalea gripped the precious starshooter to her chest, swallowing.

“Of course,” she said quietly.

Stationed on the parapets of Grimwall two years later, it was difficult not to draw parallels. Azalea looked over the colorful slats of the town’s gabled roofs to the horizon, where the leyline glowed as a faint thread in the distance. Perhaps on another day, she would have seen flower wreaths tossed over roofs or hung over doors for the Petal Waltz, or embroidered snowdrop flags rippling in the winter wind for Bell Day. But not this night. All was cold and empty, a moment of bated breath before the plunge, an eye of the storm.

Azalea heard footsteps from behind and turned from her lonesome perch. Four company soldiers had ascended the parapets, each one bearing the golden glint of a starshooter. Leading them was Wes in his grand cloak and perfect stride.

She thought she saw his lips twitch upward as he looked up, regarding her perch on the merlon of the tallest parapet. Azalea jumped down from her seat, landing softly on the limestone battlements to meet him.

“Lady Fairwen,” Wes said, gesturing to the soldiers. “Might I present our marksman subunit?”

Azalea nodded respectfully.

Wes turned to the marksmen. “For tonight, you are under Lady Fairwen’s command. Listen to her as you would my own father.”

“As if a Hunter could teach us how to shoot,” muttered one of the soldiers.

Wes’s eyes snapped to Azalea, but she minutely shook her head. She would rather not start the battle with low morale by scolding her unit. They would find out just how much she could teach them about shooting before long.

So Wes only said, “At your leisure, Lady Hunter,” and descended the parapet. He would join later with his pikemen and archers, no doubt—but for now, they were spread throughout town, gathering what quicklime and enlisting what militia they could.

Azalea crossed her arms as she regarded the snipers before her. Three men, one woman. All of them looked at her with simmering resentment, which was unsurprising. Nobles and their workers did not think highly of the Airlean government—neither the crown nor the magistracies. In their eyes, the government was an obstacle at best, a threat to their power at worst. Well, so long as these marksmen listened to her orders, they could glare at her however much they wanted.

“You,” said one of the soldiers suddenly, his brows lifting in surprise.

It took Azalea a moment to recognize him—to place the sharp and rigid features, the sour face, the cutting eyes. She was looking at none other than Grey, the nosy, bothersome soldier always trying to belittle and undermine Wes. She did not like him one bit.

Of course he would be in this unit, Azalea fumed. Fate is so unkind.

“You,” Grey repeated, eyes narrowing. “You’re a Hunter? You, a tiny slip of a girl?”

The other marksmen exchanged glances. Azalea lifted her chin and tried to summon as much authority as possible. “Watch your tongue. You speak to a Royal Hunter.”

Grey’s brow twitched, but his tone smoothed out at the ends. He was nothing if not a proficient pretender. “Forgive me, Lady Hunter. I simply did not expect a repeat encounter with the young Lord Geppett’s pretty little…client.”

She did not like how he said that word. “What are you implying?”

“A mere curiosity,” said Grey, tilting his head. “You are no client at all. Then are you his lover?”

“Grey,” said one of the other marksmen warningly, but he did not move to stop him.

“Don’t be a fool,” said Azalea, gesturing to her starshooter. “I am a client. The young lord Geppett has made some critical modifications to my weapon.”

Grey shook his head, sharp gaze glinting. “The leaf motifs on the receiver. That is a Geppett family starshooter. He gave you his personal weapon.”

Azalea opened her mouth. Then closed it. At the most important moment, words evaded her. Curse the man for having eyes. She’d hoped that he was as dull as he was odious.

Grey took in the look on her face and grinned. “Lord Geppett would be livid to know this. His son, in love with a king’s lapdog.”

“Then Lord Geppett would be livid over a lie,” Azalea said stiffly. “His son feels nothing more than respect—”

Grey barked out a laugh. “What amorous respect. Husbands have felt less for their wives—”

“A noblewoman has already caught his attention,” Azalea said angrily, “so you would do well to shut your mouth.”

That seemed to throw Grey for a loop. He was quiet for all of three seconds.

“A noblewoman?” he repeated.

Azalea stifled a huff and turned away. Yes, Wes had fallen for some dense noblewoman with awful taste who had rejected him three times, but no matter. That was not for Grey to know.

“As for the starshooter,” she continued coldly, “it was part of a valuable transaction to which you are not privy, so do watch your mouth. I doubt Lord Geppett would look kindly upon somebody defaming his son and heir.”

Grey blanched slightly and stepped away. Good. Nothing like a little dose of fear to keep his nose out of Wes’s business. It hadn’t even been a lie; although Wes had intended the prize firearm as a gift, Azalea would always see it as an exchange. The weight and privilege of his unwavering trust was something she would spend a lifetime repaying.

The archers and local militia began to ascend the battlements, readying their arrows and quicklime, while the pikemen gathered at ground level, preparing for the breach. Wes pulled Azalea aside for one final word, and she followed him to a patch of poplar trees where the moonlight slotted through crisp leaves and waved over stocky roots.

“What is it, Lord Geppett?” she asked. She began to salute out of habit before she remembered that technically, her rank surpassed his.

“Nothing important, ’Zalie,” Wes said gently. “There’s just something I wanted to say.”

Azalea relaxed. Then this exchange would be between friends, not commanding officers.

“This battle will be a tough one,” Wes admitted. “I haven’t had the time to build trust yet. I don’t know how this unit will hold together. Maybe they’ll rout at the first sign of trouble.”

Her brow knitted down. “Is that why they’re so lacking in courtesy?”

“Basically. Not that I blame them. My brothers have already built a reputation.” Wes’s gaze turned distant, settling somewhere invisible among the poplars. “Men who prefer taverns and brothels to strategic study, who’ve doomed their units to foolish deaths. They probably expect me to be the same.”

“That’s not fair. You’re nothing like your brothers.”

“I don’t know. Maybe I am.” He shook his head. “But not in this regard.”

“You’ll lead them well.”

“I’ll be a damn good captain,” he said firmly. Then his voice hollowed out. “I have to.”

“You already are one,” Azalea said, nudging his shoulder. “Just let them see it.”

She was rewarded with a smile, warm and real, that bloomed over his face like sunlight. For a treacherous moment, her heart wavered. She loved his eyes, caramel-warm and always so earnest, so tender, devouring every trinket and its inner workings like a feast. She loved his hair, springy and fluffy, soft as grass between her fingers. She loved the steady slope of his shoulders and the calluses of hard work on his hands. He wasn’t hers to love, but she did anyway.

“I’ll bring you home safe,” she said softly. “I swear it.”

Wes’s thumb swiped a raindrop from her cheek. Azalea breathed in and tasted poplar on the tip of her tongue.

“Then keep yourself safe,” he murmured. “It wouldn’t be home without you.”

Iridescent lightning rattled above them. For a moment, it seemed like Wes had disappeared into the darkness. Then Azalea’s eyes adjusted and she saw his silhouette emerge again. From the battlements, a horn gave a lowing call.

Nothing more had to be said. In unison, Azalea and Wes fired their windsoles, and they were shooting into the sky, racing to meet an unknown future.