Table of Contents
An Unexpected Savior
Keedar whipped out his dagger and spun to face the open doorway. Darkness gaped at him. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of mold. If he strained, he thought he could make out a silhouette. He tilted his head slightly, trying to make out what lay ahead. Other than his and his charges’ breathing, no other sound greeted him.
“Your father said to take them straight through to the other side,” a gravelly voice said from the interior. Keedar brought his knife up. “There’ll be someone there to escort them out. He also warned them not to come back. Not if they wish to live. Now, step inside before those Snakes return.”
Keedar glanced behind him, still hesitant. The nobles also had their weapons bared.
A lamp sparked in a hallway ahead. All Keedar made out was a blue cloak and a gloved hand that placed the lamp on a table. The head of the cloak turned slightly to them, the face mired in shadows and fingers of dancing flames.
“Give me a few minutes. When I light the next one, you’ll know the way is clear.”
“Well, you heard the man,” Keedar said, relieved, “inside.”
Their helper’s form disappeared down the hall as they ventured into the building. Keedar closed the door behind them.
“I’m Gaston. This is Winslow. Thanks for saving us.”
Up close, Gaston appeared even bonier than Keedar first thought. Keedar often considered himself the thinnest person in Kasandar, certainly in all the Smear, until now. Compared to Gaston, he was a decent build. The boy had to be sick. No way a healthy noble looked like one the Smear’s starving dogs.
“Call me Keedar.”
“Why interfere? They would have done us no harm.” As broad of shoulder as his friend was a twig, Winslow’s voice was deep and strong, like an older man’s not a boy’s. “Your leaders know better. All you dregs know better.” Contempt colored his tone. Even in the dim light, the scorn with which he inspected Keedar was unmistakable.
Keedar also sensed something else. Uncertainty. Without flinching, he met Winslow’s gaze. “Does everyone agree with the way things are handled in the Golden Spires, or how the counts make decisions up on the Ten Hills without visiting some of the other districts? In fact, do the counts always follow the king’s orders to the letter?” He took in Winslow’s frown. “No? So what makes you think it’s different among dregs, thieves, Kasandar’s scum? After all, that’s all we are, aren’t we?” He hadn’t meant to sound bitter, but he couldn’t help himself.
“No buts. Ever since the Night of Blades the Snakes have sworn to make one of you pay. You nobles have been smart enough to stay out even when you play your dumb game. At least until today.”
“It isn’t a dumb game.” Gaston sounded more than a little indignant. “It isn’t a game at all.”
“Really? Well, consider me confused. There isn’t shit in the Smear. No. Correct that. Shit is all there is in the Smear. By the abyss, it’s even named correctly. You have all the world before you on the Hills. Why come here?”
“A test,” Winslow said.
“Every year, each count chooses a student to be apprenticed with the King’s Blades,” Winslow explained grudgingly. “One of the tests is to venture as close to the Smear as possible. Any who enter and return unscathed are automatically given a spot.”
Keedar stood openmouthed.
Although the Smear’s inhabitants made up some of their ranks, the Blades were the most elite warriors, able to harness the essence of their souls as a form of power beyond any normal human. He’d seen them throw fire, make swords from nothing, encase their bodies and hands in lightning, and tear rents in the earth, as well as use other forms of soul magic like the race from which they descended.
Despite the Day of Accolades, he still wondered what it would have been like to be trained by them instead of his father. It would never happen. Not for one of his social status. Not for one as old as he. But a man still had to have his dreams.
Would Mother be alive today if she had let them take me?
That night still haunted him, filled with flames, her screams, and scales. He shook his head against the images.
“Now you understand,” Winslow said.
Still numb, Keedar nodded.
“To be honest,” Gaston added, “I have no real interest in becoming a Blade nor the skill. I came because he did.” He gestured to Winslow. “He often finds himself in more trouble than he can handle.”
“You’re a good friend, then,” Keedar said, “a better one than I could ever be.”
“How was it that you were able to hide us and yourself like that?” Winslow was squinting at him.
Keedar shrugged. He’d hoped they wouldn’t ask, but he had his answer prepared. “I’ve always been able to do that. My father said it’s a force of will. If I wish for it hard enough, and stand in the right spot, I won’t be seen. The first time it ever happened, I was in the Parmien Forest, being chased by a derin.” He shuddered, recalling the grey-furred beast with canines as long as his forearm, its bushy mane, bobbed tail, and eyes like glittering coals. “It had me to kill. I stood against a tree, hoping it wouldn’t see me. Somehow, it lost sight of me. It could still smell me though. It circled and circled, confused, until my father and his men showed up and chased it off.” As a reminder, Father had insisted he wear the derin leather gloves and greaves ever since.
“The Creator’s Blessing,” Gaston whispered.
“Or soul magic.” Winslow frowned. “Sounds as if you can meld.”
“If that were true,” Keedar said, meeting his eyes, “I’d be dead. No one escapes the examiners. You can check the Golden Spires’ records. They’ve tested me several times. I think it’s just luck.”
“Or the Creator.” Gaston returned Keedar’s doubtful gaze with a shrug.
“Piss on the Creator and the entire Dominion,” Keedar said.
A gasp escaped Gaston’s lips.
“Uneducated heathens.” Winslow spat to one side.
“You must be pissed then, because an ignorant, faithless dreg saved your ass.” Keedar let them digest that for a bit. Although well-versed in religion due to the lecturers Father employed in secret, he remained unconvinced the Gods existed. Believing the Ten, or the Dominion as the books often called them, were all part of one all-powerful being was similarly ludicrous. “Anyway, we avoided a disaster for both our friends and family. That’s all that matters.”
“We owe you,” Gaston muttered.
A scowl was all Keedar got from Winslow.
“It’s fine. Not like it didn’t benefit me too.” Keedar knew Winslow’s type. No way was he going to admit a debt to a dreg. He growled under his breath at the term.
“Should I want to repay you, how will I find you?” Gaston averted his eyes as he asked the question.
“I’m usually on a roof somewhere. Pass nearby and I should see you.”
A lamp bloomed down the hall.
“Well, it’s time to go.” Not looking to see if they followed, Keedar headed toward the light.