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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 15

The Ambassador

Saga slept like the troubled dead. When dawn spilled into the small loft room, she’d hardly budged, but her hair was a tangled mess around her flushed face.

I closed the window, not recalling leaving it open, and considered waking her. She almost looked peaceful, absent the constant tautness in her jaw.

I didn’t see the trouble in letting the menace of a woman sleep a little longer, and strode down to the front of the house to search out food and a few clothes.

I had a few silver pieces meant to buy one passage on a ship to the North. It wouldn’t go far. As a dignitary for the Ferus name and reputation, I didn’t relish the idea of using illusions to pay for things, but . . . Valen would need to forgive me.

Desperate times. And, truth be told, my king had done a great deal worse than offering a few copper pieces I’d found lost in the grass as silver coins.

My face was twisted in my fury as I scanned the few carts in the town square that opened at the sunrise. The bustle was refreshing enough, I nearly forgot we were running for our necks. The fae folk here didn’t seem impacted by the strange spell in the royal knolls. But would it last?

With a heaviness weighing in my chest, I watched the old woman with milk-blue skin package the glazed saffron buns in her cheesecloth wrap. She was at peace, a fae woman happy to be working and baking and selling her trade.

What would happen if the darkness that clung to the fae in Alvheim spread across the isles and robbed her of her thoughts?

“Currants?” She beamed so her pale lips looked ready to split. She held up a small wooden cup filled with plump black and red currant berries.

I glanced at my hand of copper coins and felt irksome guilt dig deep at the thought of leaving her with a mere quarter of a payment when the illusion fell away. I tucked the coins into my pocket and shook my head. “Not today, love.”

Nich.” She clicked her tongue and took my hand, dumping a heaping pile of currants into my palm. “I hear you be visiting Featherwood Tavern with your betrothed on your way to take vows. They say you’ve had quite a long courtship and it’s bleeding time you took them vows.”

“Do they say all that after only just meeting us?” I chuckled. Small township gossip reminded me of lazy days in the Ruskig refuge during the wars of the North when we had nothing to do but speculate about others. Particularly when Valen reappeared as the feared Blood Wraith, before we knew the truth of his name, and he had eyes for an enemy royal.

Gossip and rumors were almost like home.

The fae woman winked and closed my fingers gently around the berries, careful not to break the skins. “Take ‘em as a special vow treat from Hagatha.”

I dipped my chin and grinned. “Many thanks, love.”

I tucked the currants into my pack and turned to leave, but Hagatha pulled on my arm.

“You have burdens, boy.” She patted the place over her heart. “You’ll never love ʼer fully if you don’t give troubles over to ʼer.”

Sweat dampened my palms. I’d slept like I’d always slept—fitfully with faces of the past glaring back at me with all the things I should’ve done, all the things I might’ve prevented if I’d not been so bleeding foolish.

The way the woman stared at me it was as though she could see it all.

But I’d not lived the life I’d lived to fail at masking ghosts now. I widened my grin with ease. “I’m afraid my lover does know how to keep a man up at night. That is all you’re seeing.”

Hagatha smirked, almost knowingly. “Ah, boy. You’ll learn someday. Not everyone is afraid to see the darkness we all keep inside. The one who loves you best won’t try to change it, they’ll simply bring the lantern and hold you through it.”

With that, the woman turned around and busied about frosting more of her pies and breads.

I shared her belief every soul had a side of darkness, but I did not believe all darkness ought to be shared. I tormented myself enough, there was no reason to include those I loved, nor risk their disdain.

For turns I’d existed. Nothing more. Merely existed as a fighter, a warrior, a rebel for a land I’d been born into. It wasn’t until the king and queen joined my fight, embraced me as more than a fellow warrior, that I realized what I stood to lose if my darkness was ever found out.

After all, Valen sacrificed everything to save his family.

I killed mine.


By the time I returned to the room, the bed was made back up as if it hadn’t been touched, and Saga was pacing like she might stomp a hole in the floorboards.

In truth, the way she spun on me, eyes wild, I was surprised she didn’t toss a knife at my heart.

“Where the hells have you been?” She crossed the room, limping slightly, and butted her chest to mine.

Dressed in yesterday’s tunic, Saga had washed her face, so her skin sparkled with the dampness, and had braided her hair simply behind her neck. I’d witnessed her in gowns and battle leathers, both a delightful sight, but I wasn’t certain I’d seen her as lovely as now.

There was a delirious kind of attraction when the woman bared her teeth and snarled at me like she might gnaw out my ability to speak; that or kiss me.

Either would be an adventure.

“Gathering supplies. As discussed.” I let the pack slump onto the bed and showed her one of the gray wool tunics I’d purchased from a less-than amiable textile merchant. I had no guilt leaving him a handful of illusion coated copper for the clothing.

With care, I lifted the saffron buns and currants onto the rabbit fur cover and waved an animated hand around like revealing some great mountain of gold.

Saga wasn’t impressed.

“You left me.” She crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes.

“You were sleeping, and I’m not afraid to admit I enjoy sprawling out when I sleep. I thought you might think it polite of me to give you the whole of the bed for a time.”

Saga’s lip twitched. “You. Left me. Without a word. What was I supposed to do? Assume you were dead? That you’d decided to go on alone? I couldn’t leave the room with my face like this.”

Hells, she was furious. Call it a gut feeling, but I suspected it was less to do with her desire to leave the room and chat up the tavern matron, and more to do with the words she’d repeated twice—I’d left her.

If I had better manners, I might’ve apologized. I might’ve tried to get her to tell me where this odd fear of being left behind stemmed from, but that might crack into deeper layers. The sort I’d thought of too much already today.

“Dearest,” I pressed a hand to my chest. “Were you worried for me?”

A splash of red coated Saga’s face. “Do you ever listen? I was trapped here! I assure you there was relief at your absence, but I am a prisoner to your whims. To be left behind was slightly frightening, and for the first time in months, I truly felt imprisoned by your hand.”

Saga clamped her teeth with enough vigor I heard the clack.

Clearly, she hadn’t meant to admit all that. No mistake, her insults to me were tangled with vulnerability she never intended to show. I suppose enough time had gone by in our bond that I’d stopped seeing her for what she was—a captive.

To me, she’d merely become a constant I’d come to rely upon. To Saga, each sunrise was another day in her hundred turn sentence of servitude.

As much as I didn’t want to, I could understand the panic of abandonment without the means or supplies to protect oneself.

I sat on the edge of the bed, knee bouncing. “I did not mean to be gone so long, and my intention truly was to let you sleep. Apologies for causing you angst this morning.”

Saga opened her mouth but seemed to rethink whatever retort was set to spew out. She blinked rapidly a few times, then let out a long sigh. “What . . . what supplies did you get?”

I cleared my throat and spread out the extra tunics, trousers, stockings, dried fruits and oatcakes that would keep well enough on the road.

“We’ll need to find some smooth pebbles if we ever need to buy more,” I said. “That was the last of the silver and what copper I found.”

“Pebbles?”

“I can make them into something else.” I wiggled my fingers without looking at her.

Saga snorted. “I think you are devious.”

“You think right.” I shoved a handful of currants into my mouth, then rinsed my hands at the clay basin. “We should use illusion coins sparingly, though. There are so few true illusion fae here, it wouldn’t take long for word to travel that once-silver coins were now pebbles.”

“Agreed. We can’t leave a trail.”

“That is a point of discussion.” I pointed at her. “We need a map to plot out the journey to the Court of Blood. I don’t know the way off the roads, and it leaves me unsettled.”

“Even if I cannot lie and assure you, we are on the right path?”

“It helps me keep us safer if I know where I’m headed as well,” I said with a shrug.

“Fair enough.”

“Look at us.” I chuckled. “Getting along so nicely.”

Saga sucked a bit of sugar glaze from her thumb with a pop. “Keep bringing me saffron buns and I think you’ll find me rather agreeable.”

“A favorite of yours?”

Saga hesitated, but a small, barely-there grin twisted in the corner of her mouth. “My daj and brother used to buy them for me on my birth fete. So many they’d build a tower, then we’d spend the day devouring them together.”

“I did not know you have a brother.” I knew nothing about Saga’s folk.

She blanched. “Did. He’s dead. Everyone is. Rather not talk of it.”

Ah, I could understand the feeling. A bite of sadness on her behalf was a strange notion. For a moment, I considered offering my condolences, and that I did understand. I buried it quickly.

There was a risk here, one of getting too comfortable. If I allowed myself, I might think things about her that I had no business thinking. To like her more than mild repulsion was a risk Saga did not need in her life.

It wasn’t one I needed.

I backed toward the door. “I was going to visit our friendly matron and see if she has any maps of the kingdom before we leave. Staying or joining?”

Saga kicked her legs off the bed and quickly wiped her fingers in the water. “Joining. I don’t trust you not to leave again.”

I laughed and held the door open for her to go first. “If I were you, I would not trust me at all, sweet menace.”


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