31. Declaration

Nicolina denied Azalea’s request immediately.

The guildmaster was tight-lipped and pale-faced, exhausted in the wake of the surge. Azalea was sorry to burden her during such a trying time, but not sorry enough to rescind her request.

“Fairwen,” said Nicolina evenly, “do you know what you’re asking?”

Azalea squared her shoulders and did not back down. “We require reinforcements to survive the final strike, Guildmaster. Powerful reinforcements.”

“That’s not your responsibility, and I’ll thank you to remember as such.”

Azalea only lifted her chin against the gentle reprimand. “But it is, Guildmaster. I may only be the Fiftieth Hunter, but I have a responsibility to do everything in my power to protect our nation.”

The edges on Nicolina’s face softened. “Fairwen,” she said, her voice hatefully steady, like coaxing a small child. “This is not a burden for you to shoulder. I don’t think you realize just how much you’ve accomplished in these short months. You went from hunting Class Ones to taking point on the defense of a major town during a surge. You’ve killed a Four. And I hear that you cast a mold as a first-time Threader. Your progress is, frankly, prodigious.”

Azalea pressed her hand on the desk until her fingers ran white. “It wasn’t enough. So many people died. Wes”—her voice broke for a second—“was nearly one of them. It doesn’t matter, it wasn’t enough.”

“It was enough,” Nicolina said sharply. “What wasn’t enough was me. You went into that defense undermanned.”

“That’s no excuse—”

“Nobody would expect a new Hunter to hold off a Class Four and its heralds. That’d be a challenge even for Hunters with years of experience.” Nicolina sat up straighter, her grey eyes heavily weighted. “You should’ve had more allies with you, Fairwen. I failed you.”

Perhaps an Azalea one month younger would have been placated. Or comforted. Or maybe flustered.

But the Azalea of today only felt a cool, deadly calm.

“There aren’t allies to spare,” she said quietly. “The Garrison was dispatched, as was every Hunter. Even the noble houses were sending out their private companies. And still, still we were overwhelmed.”


“If Lord Halcyon hadn’t been wounded, then he could have taken Grimwall, and no one would have died.” Her eyes lifted to Nicolina’s paling face. “And he was only wounded because of the Whisperer.”

There was a rare, haunted kind of fear in Nicolina’s eyes. “No.”

“I must speak with him,” Azalea said firmly. “We need the Whisperer as an ally. Or we need him dead.”

Nicolina’s fingers curled into her desk. “I said no, Fairwen.”

Azalea was unmoving. “He might be dangerous, but if we could strike a deal, find something he needs, his power could be a great boon.”

“Your burden is to fight, not to negotiate.”

“I don’t think we have much of a choice.”

Nicolina slammed a hand down on her desk. “I’m not sending you to die in the Noadic Range.”

“I don’t think,” Azalea said quietly, “that you have much of a choice either, Guildmaster.”

“I’ll have you court-martialed and called to a tribunal.” Nicolina’s eyes were burning. “Don’t think I won’t.”

The study fell into silence. In the distance, the Mythaven clock tower sounded, tolling like a death knell. Midday. The citizens would be breaking for lunch, bravely attempting to carry on with their lives past the dread of hanging clouds over the capital.

“Very well,” Azalea whispered.

She reached into a pouch and withdrew her Hunter’s sigil. The shield-emblem of Airlea gleamed in bright, promising gold, the undying color of hope. She placed it on Nicolina’s desk.

“I, Azalea Fairwen,” she said, “hereby resign from the Royal Hunters of Airlea.”

Nicolina stood, her chair scraping against the floor. “Fairwen.”

“Would you like for me to return the subsidized equipment, like my windsoles?”

“Sit down. I’m not processing your withdrawal.”

Azalea shook her head. “You must. A Hunter’s term is not set for a fixed interval, nor compulsory.”

“Then you must first submit your discharge request and be interviewed on concern of national security—”

“The concern of national security only applies to magistracies with access to confidential internal information,” Azalea responded readily, “such as the Magistracy of Justice, the Magistracy of Commerce and Trade, and the Magistracy of Culture.”

Nicolina blinked in surprise, but plowed on quickly. “Then you’ll need to submit advance notice a fortnight before your resignation becomes effective—”

“The fortnight notice is a courtesy, not a legality. Technically, it is not required.” Azalea blinked slowly. “I read the contract.”

Exhaustion passed over Nicolina’s face, and she slumped back in her chair with a weary laugh.

“Myths alive, Fairwen,” she said.

Azalea lowered her gaze. “I’m sorry, Guildmaster. But I must leave for the Noadic Range. I must find the Dragon Whisperer.”

“Why?” Nicolina demanded.

Because I have to save them. Wes. My family. My country. I would rather die trying than wait for us to be massacred.

But Azalea said none of those words. Instead, she rummaged in her pouches until her fingers found a slim, creamy envelope sealed with cheap wax.

“Please relay this to Wes when he wakes,” she said. She placed it on the desk beside her Hunter’s sigil.

Nicolina pushed both items back across the table, her jaw locked hard. “Relay it yourself,” she said. “This is a fool’s errand, Fairwen, and I won’t be encouraging any part of it.”

Azalea slipped the letter back into her satchel, but let the sigil lie there, perched precariously on the edge of the desk. She bowed respectfully and turned for the door. A rare panic bled over Nicolina’s features.

“He won’t see your letter,” Nicolina said, her voice rising, her syllables quickening until they were crashing together in an unusual display of lost composure. “He won’t hear from you again. He’ll search for you for months, wait for you for years. He’ll listen for his door every night and he’ll be heartbroken at every visitor who isn’t you. If you go like this, Fairwen, he won’t be able to grieve you.”

“But he’ll be alive,” Azalea said, “and that’s what matters.”

She slipped out of the study and left the guild without looking back.