44. Promises (5)

Wes did not linger at the Geppett estate.

The moment Lord Valence departed the estate with his retinue, he ran for his bedchambers and hurriedly stashed a water flask, a hunting knife, and a warm change of clothes into his bag. But an unwelcome, sallow face was waiting for him as he tore out into the hallway.

“Hello, young master,” said Grey Dismas sourly. “You’ll notice that I have not yet informed your lord father of the depths of your betrayal, regarding your scandalous choice of partner—”

“Yes, very good,” said Wes distantly. He shouldered past Grey and hopped on the banister, sliding down the flight of stairs.

“I am talking!” came Grey’s cry from above. “Return here at once so you can be properly chastised!”

The most important thing was to confirm Azalea’s whereabouts.

It was very possible that Lord Valence had invented his entire story. But this was unlikely, Wes had to admit—because Valence had nothing to gain from making such a bold ploy on somebody who had no authority or influence.

Wes burst through the estate’s opulent iron gates and began springstepping to Mythaven at an urgent pace. His legs screamed in protest with every leap, but he refused to give in to the pain. Not before he had confirmed the truth.

He pushed into his workshop, but was only met with silence. The same applied to her little rented room, where her belongings lay untouched, dust gathering on the windowsill.

Panic rising, Wes turned his steps to the Hunter’s Guild.

He pushed through the main area, ignoring the restless groups of Hunters congregating around tables of beer flagons and cards, and barreled into Nicolina’s office without preface. The guildmaster was sitting behind her desk several feet away, studying a map sprawling over her desk. At her side stood Karis Caelute, who seemed likewise occupied. Their faces, ordinarily placid and well-controlled, were drawn and grim.

Wes stepped forward, but paused when he felt the sharp, cold bite of steel at his throat.

He blinked, disoriented. Nicolina and Karis were standing too far to be of any threat, and they had drawn no weapons. But he most certainly felt something cold and thin pressing right on his jugular.

As his gaze slid around, searching for the source of the dangerous prick on his neck, Karis spoke in a soft and deadly hum.

“Do not be so eager to approach the guildmaster unannounced.” Her blood-red eyes lifted and caught his, freezing him in place. “Despite her…approachable behavior, she is a top-ranking magistrate. Her station warrants respect. And an appointment.

A sharp chill pricked at Wes’s spine. He knew then what threatened his neck: a single thread of Karis’s deadly sugar-line, tough enough to slice his head right off his shoulders. For it was not a cord spun from the delicate mana of the sugar cane plant. It was a blend of her own invention—the cold sting of ice mana, spun with flower mana for supple flexibility. The result was a deadly thread that could slice through any hide but weave into any shape.

He tried to sound calm and placating through the pounding roar of blood in his ears. “I’m here on a matter of urgency, Lady Caelute.”

“Most excellent. Get in line.”

“Caelute,” Nicolina said warningly, “that’s the Geppett heir.”

“I am aware.”

“The commanding officer who defended Grimwall.”

“Yes, I was the one who Threaded his system.”

Nicolina gave a long, exhausted sigh. “Disperse your mana before he indicts us before a tribunal.”

Karis clicked her tongue and waved her fingers, and the icy pressure on Wes’s throat disappeared. “One of these days, Guildmaster, some knave is going to stroll into this room and kill you, easy as you please.”

“Yes,” Nicolina said. “And that knave will be you or Yuden, giving me a coronary with your ridiculous antics and sending me to an early grave.”

“You’re far too accessible, Guildmaster. No other magistrate in the country is as easy to approach as you.”

“All the better. Nobody likes those stodgy old coots.” Nicolina’s grey eyes raised and locked with Wes. “Now, Geppett. Your business?”

Wes’s eyes flickered towards Karis, who looked somewhat miffed, but stayed silent. The Second Hunter truly was every bit as beautiful and elegant as Azalea had claimed—the striking lines of her face, the grace of her movements, the dignity of her bearing. But there was more, more that Azalea probably had not seen. Wes recognized the deep, familiar hint of darkness in those crimson eyes, biding quietly, waiting to flower in a violent storm and consume everything in reach. It was the same vengeful bloodlust that he knew in himself—only Karis had not denied it, but embraced it. She was a venomous blossom, a flytrap, waiting for the perfect moment to unleash chaos.

He turned back to Nicolina. “My apologies for the untimely interruption,” he said, gathering his thoughts. “I’ve been…indisposed for a week, and find myself somewhat disoriented. Do you know the whereabouts of Azalea Fairwen?”

Karis’s mouth curled into a slight upward curve that looked utterly furious. “Do you believe the Guildmaster to be your personal maidservant? As Fairwen’s Support, you ought to know better than anyone.”

Nicolina raised a hand. “Don’t, Caelute,” she said quietly.

“Guildmaster, the nobility always treats you in this manner. Storming into your study and pushing you about—”

“I’ve been expecting this visit for some time. Let him speak.”

Karis quieted, clearly bewildered. Wes inadvertently stepped back. Nicolina’s receptiveness only served to fill him with even more trepidation.

“Geppett,” said Nicolina, hatefully gentle.

He already knew what that meant. “Stop,” he said.

“I thought somebody would have already relayed the news to you.”

Don’t. I don’t need to hear it.”

“You came here to hear it, didn’t you?”

No. He had come here to hear that Azalea was safe.

“As of last week,” Nicolina said quietly, “Fairwen is missing in action. She submitted her resignation and turned in her sigil, citing personal reasons.”

Resigned. Gone without a trace, all loose ends neatly tied up. As if she had never been.

Wes sat down heavily. All he could think of was a cold workshop and an empty cushioned chair.

Karis was speaking, her syllables agitated—the most emotion Wes had ever heard beyond her immaculate exterior. “Resigned! How is that possible? That child has worked herself to the bone to become a Hunter. She would hardly just leave.”

“Believe me, I did my best to talk her out of it.”

“And you only saw fit to tell us now? Seven days after the fact?”

“I’ve been…reluctant to process her resignation.”

“In the event she returns?”

“The near-impossible event. Yes.”

Near-impossible event. Wes wanted to laugh.

“Guildmaster, this is simply absurd,” Karis said. “You are telling me that the most law-abiding Hunter in the history of the guild chose to resign just days before the final strike, the time of greatest need, and would not provide a valid reason?”

“It’s because it’s the time of greatest need,” Wes said emptily. His mind began to churn forward slowly, one thought at a time. “It’s the last chance to find a secret weapon. Something that could save the country from the next Storm.”

Karis’s gaze cut to Nicolina. “Should something like that exist, Guildmaster, I am certain that many Hunters would have a keen interest in acquiring it.”

“It doesn’t exist,” Nicolina said sharply. “It’s only Fairwen’s—” She stopped short.

This time, Wes did laugh. A strange, unearthly sound, even to his ears. “Fairwen’s delusions?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“But it’s what you were going to say.” His hands trembled as he pulled himself to his feet. “What a poor, pitiable little girl, throwing her life away for a fantasy.”

“You’re in shock, Geppett,” Nicolina said steadily. “You need to go back and rest.”

Rest.” He laughed again. His fingers curled into his palm. “I’ve rested enough. I rested a whole damn week. It’s time for me to get something done.”

“The best thing you can do, Geppett, is keep safe until the Storm strikes.”

“Because I’m a noble! Rich and powerful! Which makes my life worth so much more than others, is that right?” He gripped his traveling bag closer. “While a simple village girl, say, from Maple Point—she’s not worth searching for. Even if she’s more noble than all of the nobility, and risked her life to save the country. No, she’s poor, so she’s not worth anything.”

Nicolina finally rose to her feet, her mouth a hard line. “She is worth plenty, Geppett, but she made the choice herself. I cannot sacrifice resources to amend that.”

“I’m aware. Which is why I’ll find her myself.”

Karis gaped openly, and Nicolina faltered for a moment.

“Geppett,” she said sharply. “That isn’t smart and you know it. You’ve just come back from death’s door. Don’t throw away your life again like a fool.”

“I’m not,” Wes said calmly. “I’ll find Azalea and get both of us out.”

“You can’t guarantee that. You can’t even guarantee that she’s still alive.”

“True.” He turned and opened the door.

Get back here, Geppett. If not for your sake, then for your father’s. What would he say about this lunacy?”

Wes stiffened. “He’d thank you for getting rid of me.”

He strode out of the study and shut the door behind him. His steps were steady as he left the guild, filled with purpose.

He was too far to hear Nicolina’s voice rise desperately, halfway shrill: “Geppett!

It had been an aggressively, hatefully sunny day when Nicolina lost the love of her life.

The previous Guildmaster left the world in the same way most Hunters did: he marched off to save the country one day and never came back. But Nicolina waited patiently. She continued to handle guild paperwork as his loyal Support, filing contracts and shelving reports and organizing all the orders that needed to be signed and sealed upon his return. She waited days, then weeks. Surely he would saunter in when she least expected it, face dressed in his wry little grin. Hey there, Nicky, he’d say, and she’d kick him out the window and shave him bald for daring to worry her.

Then the weeks turned into months. The stack of orders grew so tall that Nicolina began to sign them off just to save space. Hunters began to refer to her as Guildmaster and asked her for assignments. Tables were broken during a brawl and she approved the order for new ones as Guildmaster. Months turned into years until one day, Nicolina found herself in the chamber of the Grand Tribunal, officially inaugurated as the High Magistrate of the Royal Hunters. The simple silver pin on her lapel was traded out for the heavy, ornate stone-studded magistrate badge.

Nicolina’s betrothed never did come back. But watching the young Lord Geppett depart her study, heavy weight on his brow and sickly pallor in his cheeks and tension in his mouth, a spitting image of how she looked on that terrible, sunny day, she wondered if the two of them would ever stop waiting.

Halcyon had been acquainted with Karis for nearly nine years now. In those nine years of very professional, distant acquaintanceship, he had grasped a basic understanding of the nuances in her expressions and body language. When her smile was irate—which was most of the use cases—and when it held a genuine glitter of mirth. When her aloof demeanor was a hostile wall, and when it was a front for her loneliness. When her teasing was out of a twisted sense of affection, and when it was an omen for an immediately relevant, painful death.

Which was all to say: when Halcyon strode into Nicolina’s office and found Karis standing with folded arms, a tight spine, and a thin mouth, he knew it meant bad news. Very bad news.

“Ah,” he automatically said, stepping back through the door frame. “Didn’t mean to intrude. I’ll come back lat—”

Don’t move,” Karis and Nicolina ground out in near-perfect harmony with a force that pasted his shoes to the floor.

Halcyon grimaced, but softly shut the door behind him.

“We ought to send at least one searcher,” said Karis irritably, turning back to Nicolina. “It’s the least we could do.”

“We can’t take the risk right before the Storm, Caelute. You know that.”

“It’s hardly a grand expedition, Guildmaster, going by springsprint.”

“And if the Storm strikes tonight? If you’re caught in Northelm, sprint back, and have to enter the final strike already winded?”

“Simply assume my post to be the northernmost critical zone. It would negate the inefficiencies of travel.”

“I didn’t realize you’d grown attached to Fairwen.”

Halcyon’s ears pricked slightly at that. Fairwen? The diminutive, unsure little crack-shot of a Hunter?

“Attachment!” said Karis disbelievingly. “You know full well that she made this choice in self-sacrifice to aid the entire country, Guildmaster, yet you will not even deign a basic, minimum-risk—”

“This is not the first time a Hunter has voluntarily left our ranks, Caelute,” Nicolina said warningly. “And it won’t be the last.”

Halcyon flinched. Karis’s spine stiffened and her crimson gaze hardened with a sheen that was unbearably frigid.

“Then you will not spare a searcher,” she said softly.

“With the Storm on our doorstep?” said Nicolina, a trace of grit lining her words. “No. I absolutely won’t. Send out a Hunter at the wrong moment, and a whole town could be eradicated as the price. You know that much, Caelute.”

Karis’s mouth pressed thin. “Ah, yes,” she said distantly. “The way of the Guild. To abandon its members when met with the least inconvenience.”

Nicolina’s fingers tightened on her quill. “Fairwen made the decision herself,” she said. “If she dies, then—”

“—she deserves it?”

“She’d understand, was what I meant. The Storm is almost here, Caelute. Do you get that?”

Karis’s face was still as stone. Cold, sharp, unforgiving.

“Easy for the hero to understand,” she said softly. “For the loved one, not so much.”

She turned and slipped out of the study, silent and deadly. A winter breeze waiting to strike.

Nicolina slumped back in her chair, fingers kneading at her temples. Halcyon had never seen her so exhausted. He was just about to step out and give her some privacy when she raised her head and laced her fingers back together.

“What news, Yuden?” she said.

“Nothing important,” he said quickly. “Thom read my plait today. Said I made a full recovery. I’m ready for dispatch whenever needed.”

He expected Nicolina to relax, but she only sighed. “That makes the both of you. Ready to fly at a moment’s notice when I need you to stand still.”

It wasn’t difficult to deduce who she was talking about. Halcyon glanced at the study door.

“She’ll come around,” he said. “She knows the risks.”

“You don’t know about her father.”

“Her father?” That threw him for a loop. “Wasn’t he a Hunter? Master of Forming ice.”

Nicolina drew up her legs and crossed them in her chair, which made her look unnervingly young. “He also resigned.”

That was surprising to hear. As far as Halcyon was aware, Karis’s father had died a Hunter. Nicolina probably hadn’t processed the resignation. She was soft in that way—withholding resignations if Hunters were about to die, so their families could receive the full reparations.

“We had to make some tough calls during the Great Storm,” Nicolina said. “Who we could save. Who we couldn’t.” Her fingers trailed over the sprawling map of Airlea’s shrinking kingdom. “A lot of rural villages didn’t make the list.”

Halcyon said nothing.

“Karis’s father didn’t agree with the decision,” Nicolina continued. “So he resigned. Risked his life to save a rural village by the Talebloom, and lost the gamble. The residents lived simply and had no influence. There would be no grand reward, no commendations of honor. It was, in every way, a fool’s errand.”

“Did he save their lives?”

“Saved everyone but a single child,” Nicolina confirmed. “A remarkable feat.”

Then he did his duty and more, Halcyon thought. Not that he would say it aloud. No amount of honor could soothe the aching loss of a father, brother, son.

“For all her passing front as a cold and mercenary warrior,” Nicolina said gently, “Karis has the heart of a true hero. Like her father before her.” Her gaze was unusually soft, like grey velvet. “It makes her prone to the same mistakes. Look after her, Yuden.”

A jolt ran down his spine. “You think she’s going to look for Fairwen.”

“Caelute was always the type to beg forgiveness rather than ask permission. Not that she ever did much of either.” Nicolina flicked a token with her thumb. It landed face-down among the whispery ink peaks of the Noadic Range. “It’s only a matter of time before she makes her move. Just…go at a loose follow. Keep an eye on her, you know?”

Was he hearing her correctly? “Thought all Hunters were on standby until the Storm.”

“Observatorium forecasted a ninety-eight percent chance of a northern critical zone. Which is the only reason I haven’t strapped Caelute to a cradle.” Nicolina sighed. “She probably knows it too. Both of you can read me too well.”

“Then if the Storm strikes before our return, we’ll default to the northern critical zone.”

“Yes. It might be a Class Five.”

“We’ve done it before.”

“Just once. Don’t get a swelled head about it.” Nicolina flicked another token, which landed face-up on Northelm. The lines on her face softened. “Be cautious, Yuden. I can’t afford to lose you. Either of you.”

Halcyon felt a rare, warm stir of pity. He was looking at a woman who had lost too much. More than Karis. More than him. He would make certain she didn’t lose anything more.

He saluted and pushed out of the study, taking quick strides away from the guild.