9. Contract

The Hunter’s Guild was desolate when they arrived, so quiet that Wes could hear every creak of his shoes against the wooden floorboards. The round tables strewn about the main tavern were empty, save for a few abandoned tankards. Even the attendant’s desk was unmanned.

“Lively place,” Wes said. “Did I miss the party?”

Azalea peered around the room cautiously. “It was very, um, busy the last time I was here. Maybe most of the Hunters are still facing the surge.”

He grinned and nudged her shoulder. “Well, would you look at that. You were the fastest.”

She blushed a little. “Not everyone had the Second Hunter on their team.”

“The Second Hunter?” Wes said. “You were dispatched with Caelute?”

Azalea nodded eagerly. “You should have seen her, Wes. She was every bit as incredible as the rumors say. She controlled the entire field in the blink of an eye. And—and her sugar threads are so pretty, like water, and they’re all glittery! They look like constellations!”

His smile widened. “A fairy in the flesh, huh?”

“Even better,” Azalea said, glowing. “I’m so grateful to have the chance to learn from her. I’ve started using my windsoles in everything, and the extra momentum really—but oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t talk your ear off. We have the guildmaster to see.”

“I mean, it’s fine,” Wes said bashfully. “I like hearing about your experiences.”

“So you can learn too?”

Wes blinked. “Well, I…”

“I’ll be sure to take lots of notes next time,” Azalea promised. “We can learn together.”

“Well, it’s not so much the notes,” Wes mumbled, but Azalea was already rapping on the door, sharp and prompt and all business. She’d just opened her mouth to speak when a woman’s clear voice rang through the wood.

“Come in, Fairwen. No need for formalities.”

Azalea jumped a little. Then she schooled her features and pushed through the door.

Guildmaster Nicolina looked like she hadn’t slept in a week. The diminutive woman was hunched over her desk, rich dark curls falling over her face and black bags sinking beneath her eyes. Surges, it appeared, took a heavy toll on her—as Wes would expect of someone tasked with dispatching Hunters, placating nobles and fellow magistrates, and generally keeping Airlea from utter annihilation. He had nothing but the utmost respect for the overworked guildmaster.

“How did you know it was me?” Azalea asked, drawing up to the front of the desk.

Nicolina snorted. “Does anyone else in this guild know how to knock?”

“Um, yes?”

“That was rhetorical. They absolutely don’t.” Nicolina lifted her quill with a flourish and looked up. Her steel-grey eyes fixed on Wes. “So, you’ve brought company.”

“Yes,” said Azalea with a quick salute. “I’ve come to notarize my Support Contract.”

“That was fast.”

“I knew exactly who I wanted,” Azalea said. She looked at Wes and beamed warmly. “It was just a matter of getting him to say yes.”

Color bloomed on Wes’s cheeks. He cleared his throat and snapped his feet together.

“Good day, Guildmaster!” he said briskly. “I’m Wes, an independent ingeniator who lives on the south side of Mythaven. I’ll do my best to assist Azalea on her commissions.”

Nicolina’s eyes rested heavily on him. She lowered her quill pen. Slowly.

“Well,” she said softly. “Thank you for your service, Wes.”

Wes met her gaze evenly. “My pleasure, Lady Magistrate.”

“Very kind of you to offer your services to the Hunter’s Guild. We don’t get many ingeniators around here.”

“It’s the least I could do for the country.”

She arced a brow. “For the country, hm?”

Wes was silent.

Azalea’s eyes shifted between Wes and Nicolina. She scooted forward and gingerly slid a sheet of paper across the desk—the Support contract.

“Um, about the contract,” she mumbled. “We’ve already signed it, so all that has to be done is the notary signature and wax seal.”

“Thank you, Fairwen. Your diligence is appreciated.” Nicolina’s eyes, sharp and piercing, had not moved from Wes’s face.

Azalea hesitated. “Then…that’s it?”

“Yes. You’re dismissed.”

“That was surprisingly simple,” Wes said in a measured tone.

“It’s not difficult to become a hero,” Nicolina said plainly. “But it’s difficult to stay one.”

Wes’s gaze shot to Azalea, but apparently, the message had completely gone over her head. She only saluted with a modest smile.

“I’ll do my best, Guildmaster. Good day.”

She turned and pulled the door open, then hesitated. Her eyes flitted between Wes and Nicolina again.

“Wes?” she prompted.

Wes waved a hand. “Go on without me,” he said vaguely. “I have a…question for the Guildmaster.”

Azalea frowned lightly, but slid out of the room and shut the door softly behind her.

There was a moment of silence, dispersed by the pitched tick of a tiny desk clock.

Then Nicolina’s mouth twitched up. “You’re quick on the uptake. I appreciate that,” she said, leaning back in her chair.

Wes wasn’t sure how to respond. Surely someone as influential as the Hunters’ Guildmaster would know that everyone of noble birth had to be quick on the uptake. A single mistake at the wrong soirée could get oneself killed. Nor had Nicolina been particularly subtle; even Azalea had noticed that something was off, and she was—well, ’Zalie.

He settled for something neutral, to the point. “What do you need from me?” he asked plainly.

Nicolina tapped a finger against her sleeve. A tick from her desk clock, then a tock.

“Withdraw,” she said.

Wes blinked. Surely he hadn’t heard that correctly.

“Pardon?” he said uncertainly.

Nicolina slid the contract across her desk. “Burn this, and tell Fairwen that you no longer desire this position.”

Wes scanned her face for any sign of humor, but her gaze was dead even. An ember of anger burned in his gut, and he lifted his chin.

“Why?” he asked tightly. “Because I’m some lowly, no-name inventor, putting around the outskirts of the city? Because I can’t contribute enough to justify the stipend? Or…because I’m the son of Lord Roland Geppett?”

Nicolina did not flinch. She continued staring, motionless, more lifeless than any doll he’d ever whittled.

Finally, she spoke.

“Your lineage is inconsequential here, young Geppett, for better or for worse.” She laced her fingers together, her tone icy. “I say this not to denounce you, but to warn you. Because I was you.”

“What are you talking about,” Wes said through his teeth.

“I was a Support, once. And in love with my Hunter.”

Wes’s breath stopped in his throat, cold and unmoving. He felt his face flush deep, then turn ashen.

“That obvious?” he said weakly.

Nicolina’s lips pulled upward. “A bit. But aren’t we all?”

She leaned forward, her gaze soft, yet piercing.

“The Storms are merciless, Geppett,” she said quietly. “They claim everyone in reach, rousing unbeatable monsters, bleeding this land dry.” Her face flattened. “That’s why all Hunters are destined to die young.”

Wes dropped his gaze. His hands gripped together until they turned white and clammy.

All Hunters are destined to die young.

“Do yourself a favor.” Nicolina tapped a finger on the contract. “Walk away from this. Don’t get attached.”

Die young.

He couldn’t imagine it. Not Azalea, full of so much promise and life. He couldn’t imagine her passing on so soon, laid in a beautiful coffin surrounded by beautiful flowers. He wouldn’t imagine it; he wouldn’t even entertain the thought.

He would keep her from that fate at all costs.

“With all due respect, ma’am,” Wes said, lifting his head, “that’s all the more reason for me to be at Azalea’s side. Because—because as a Support, I’ll have far more capacity to look after her. I can keep her from that kind of death—”

“No,” Nicolina interrupted, her eyes flashing. “You’ll just be consumed with guilt when you fail to do so. It’s dangerous to think that way, Geppett.”

Wes stood sharply, the legs of his chair grinding harshly into the wood. “Then I’ll have to prove you wrong,” he bit out. “I will protect her.”

“No one can keep a Hunter from death,” Nicolina said flatly. “They’re dead the moment they choose to join the Guild.”

“In that case,” Wes said coldly, “I guess that puts you in charge of running hell.”

She arced a brow, unfazed. “A job nobody likes. Trust me.”

Wes gritted his teeth. How could Nicolina hold such a pessimistic outlook while running the guild that kept the city’s hopes alive? She was supposed to front its morale and guide its Hunters, not try to convince every Support that their job was meaningless and tragic. He couldn’t understand it.

“You can burn that contract or feed it to the dogs,” he said sharply, “but nothing will stop me from supporting Azalea in any way I can. Title or no. Stipend or no.”

He was not dismissed and it was rude, but he turned to grab the door handle anyway. One last question gave him pause.

“Supports are largely family members or close friends, anyway,” he said. “Do you have this conversation every time?”

“Would that I had the time,” Nicolina said, her tone enigmatic. “But no.”

“Then what makes me different?”

“I told you.” There was a shuffle of paper: a contract sliding into a drawer, filed for future reference. “I was you, Geppett. This wasn’t for Fairwen’s sake. It was for yours.”

A spot of color caught the corner of Wes’s eye, and he turned to look. Hung upon the wall was a single portrait framed in rich oak: Nicolina, face smooth and untroubled, blushing and beaming at the artist, who hurried to capture her light in quick, fluid brushstrokes before it faded entirely.

His mouth ran dry.

“Dismissed, Geppett,” came Nicolina’s soft voice behind him. “Best of luck.”

Wes left and shut the door quietly behind him.