“Breathe,” he told Thorn. “Slowly. And time your steps to your breath.”
It wasn’t that the Tycherosi woman had no grace; there were times she moved like a shark through the water, hungry and with dark purpose. Other times, however, she acted like a child who was about to be hit, or who craved a toy she could not have. Song needed her to be consistent. They were about to swim among a different kind of shark, and those nobles would smell blood in the water.
“I’ve done this before, you know.” Her tone was a little indignant. “I taught at the university, and we would have parties all the time—some of them would be very nice, except you could feel their eyes always looking at you.”
He grinned. “Breathe. Exhale as you bring your good foot forward. No, don’t copy me exactly, you’ll need to focus on your left. As if you were about to lunge to stab someone.”
“I don’t need to stab anyone, Song.” Thorn met his eyes, and a chill ran through him. Those sleek, shining black eyes reminded the Skovlander that she was as much of a predator as he.
His sether never liked it when he played in the water. They told him tales of children carried off by sea ghosts, turned into fish, and devoured by leviathans. He wasn’t afraid, though. He brought a lantern with him and paddled in one of the small pools by the shore. There was a piece of driftwood that looked just like a boat, he imagined, and he rose up out of the water like a leviathan to smash his prey!
There was a sound like a tree falling. No, an entire forest. He swam over to the edge of the water and scrambled out of the pool, cresting the hill that led down to his house.
A new sun filled the sky.
Song closed the distance between the servant and himself. Maybe it had been his accent that made her turn, seeking a fellow Skovlander. His dagger pierced her chest effortlessly. Would he have done differently? The moment their eyes met, though, both knew what had to happen.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. She grabbed at him, perhaps to try to strangle him, but her strength faded too quickly. He lowered her to the ground next to the tray she had set on the floor.
“My… name is Narya,” she choked out through blood-stained lips. Song held her for a moment and hummed a tune he hadn’t repeated since the war. The girl’s mouth moved as if to say something else, but all that passed was her last breath.
Where was Ivan? Where was Thorn? Lord Karstas waited on the other side of the door, and with him the answer to where the wealth of Brannon Kinclaith’s estate was kept.
The boy was thrown back by light and heat. He saw it then, not a sun but a machine mounted on a cart and pulled by goats. It lobbed ribbons of liquid flame, and it made his ears ring, but even that did not drown out the screaming.
With horror he looked down the small hill and saw his own house in flames. A cry caught in his throat, and he scrambled naked over rocks and hot grass. His father and sether had both been asleep when he crept out under the cover of the night.
He tripped over something. No, no! Someone. They were badly burned, but he’d recognize them anywhere. No.
“Run,” they murmured. He heard that quiet word over the shrieking death behind the two of them. He knelt down, and their hand reached up to touch his chest. The boy held his sether’s hand. “Run to the sea.”
Their hand went limp, and the boy, tears in his eyes, fled from the conflagration that had been his home.
Karstas’s body lay on the bed where Song and the magistrate had struggled as the Skovlander choked the life out of him. Fortunately Brannon Kinclaith’s valuables were all packed tidily into crates awaiting distribution among his heirs by the now-dead Karstas.
A sense of unease passed over him. Quickly he began separating some of the more valuable items. He knew, somehow, that Thorn was approaching. Unwanted flashes of insight had plagued him on several occasions over the last few weeks. Pushing his worry down, Song looked out of the door.
Thorn was drenched. Her dress was tattered, her skin filthy with grime, and her hair was once again a bedraggled mess. Something had happened. There was smoke down the hallway, and Song’s stomach tightened.
“I have the crates in here. We need to take them and leave.”
Thorn nodded. “I agree, we should leave quickly. Milos and the rest will be here soon.”
Earlier, while clearing his head after he killed Narya, Song had found a passage for servants that would get them down to the yard faster. He started to explain it to Thorn, but she put a hand up.
Hungry and half dead, the boy eagerly ate the stew the other Skovlanders had offered him once they pulled him off the raft he had hidden on for days. Several of the band had gathered what remains they could, but the Akorosi assault had burned most of the structures and people in the village to ash.
One of the women in the group offered him a piece of bread, which he snatched from her hand. Immediately he lowered his head in shame, but she put her large hand on his shoulder.
“Do you have a name, child?”
He did not reply. She did not press him.
Within the hour, they held a wake for the departed. They sang, and after some time the boy found himself singing with them, though he did not know all the words to the mournful tune. He thought of his parents, his neighbors. All of them, gone.
He was still humming the final notes of that song when he touched the woman’s hand. She offered him a sad smile.
“I have a name,” he said.
The Firebirds rushed madly to the maintenance boat they were using to carry their goods, and Song realized then he was carrying less than he had thought. What had happened?
As the boat drifted through the canal, Song reached into his vest. There was a piece of parchment there. On one side was a sketch of Song, the one the artist had drawn—and he realized he only just now remembered him. They found one another, wandering through the manor, and he had offered to sketch him. That’s how he had learned of Brannon Kinclaith’s wealth.
Song turned the page over. There, in the center, was a burning home, caught in the middle of two maelstroms—one of flame, the other a dark, crashing wave. He thought back to that boy, that village, all the things he had put behind him. His name. He carried it with him through the war, the name he had chosen in the ruins of his past.
“It doesn’t matter,“ he told Rubix. “Song is fine. It’s just… a Song.”
He was sobbing. The parchment fell from his hand, caught by a breeze, and drifted into the dark water of the canal.
He whispered his name to the woman. His new name. She nodded solemnly.
“My name is Brance,” she said. Her hand touched his arm.
Song looked up. There was Thorn, her hand on his. In her deadly, unknowable eyes he thought he saw concern.
“Breathe,” she told him.