One swift act.
I had thought that was all it would take. A knife in the gut.
A firm twist for good measure.
But as Venda swallowed me up, as the misshapen walls and hundreds of curious faces closed in, as I heard the clatter of chains and the bridge lowering behind me, cutting me off from the rest of the world, I knew my steps had to be certain.
It was going to take many acts, not just one, every step renegotiated. Lies would have to be told. Confidences gained. Ugly lines crossed. All of it patiently woven together, and patience wasn't my strong suit.
But first, more than anything, I had to find a way to make my heart stop pummeling my chest. Find my breath. Appear calm. Fear was the blood scent for wolves. The curious inched closer, peering at me with half-open mouths that revealed rotten teeth. Were they amused or sneering?
And there was the jingle of skulls. The gathering rattle of dry bones rippled through the crowd as they jockeyed to get a better look, strings of small sun-bleached heads, femurs, and teeth waving from their belts as they pressed forward to see me. And to see Rafe.
I knew he walked shackled somewhere behind me at the end of the caravan, prisoners, both of us — and Venda didn't take prisoners. At least they never had before. We were more than a curiosity. We were the enemy they had never seen. And that was exactly what they were to me
We walked past endless jutting turrets, layers of twisted stone walls blackened with soot and age, slithering like a filthy living beast, a city built of ruin and whim. The roar of the river faded behind me.
I'll get us both out of this.
Rafe had to be questioning his promise to me now.
We passed through another set of massive jagged gates, toothy iron bars mysteriously opening for us as if our arrival was anticipated. Our caravan grew smaller as groups of soldiers veered in different directions now that they were home. They disappeared down snaking paths shadowed by tall walls. The chievdar led what remained of us, and the wagons of booty jingled in front of me as we walked into the belly of the city. Was Rafe still somewhere behind me, or had they taken him down one of those miserable alleyways?
Kaden swung down from his horse and walked beside me. "We're almost there."
A wave of nausea hit me. Walther's dead, I reminded myself. My brother is dead. There was nothing more they could take from me. Except Rafe. I had more than myself to think about now. This changed everything. "Where is there?" I tried to ask calmly, but my words tripped out hoarse and uneven.
"We're going to the Sanctum. Your version of court. Where the leaders meet."
"And the Komizar."
"Let me do the talking, Lia. Just this once. Please, don't say a word."
I looked at Kaden. His jaw was tight, and his brows pulled low, as if his head ached. Was he nervous to greet his own leader? Afraid of what I might say? Or what the Komizar would do? Would it be considered an act of treason that he hadn't killed me as he was ordered? His blond hair hung in greasy tired strands well past his shoulders now. His face was slick with oil and grime. It had been a long time since either of us had seen soap-but that was the least of our problems.
We approached another gate, this one a towering flat wall of iron pocked with rivets and slits. Eyes peered through them. I heard shouts from behind it, and the heavy clang of a bell. It juddered through me, each ring shivering in my teeth.
Zsu viktara. Stand strong. I forced my chin higher, almost feeling Reena's fingertips lifting it. Slowly the wall split in two and the gates rolled back, permitting our entry into an enormous open area as misshapen and bleak as the rest of the city. It was bordered on all sides by walls, towers, and the beginnings of narrow streets that disappeared into shadows. Winding crenelated walkways loomed above us, one overtaking and melting into the next.
The chievdar moved forward, and the wagons piled in behind him. Guards in the inner court shouted their welcomes, then happily bellowed approval at the stash of swords and saddles and the glittering tangle of plunder piled high on the wagons-all that was left of my brother and his comrades. My throat tightened, knowing that soon, one of them would be wearing Walther's baldrick and carrying his sword.
My fingers curled into my palm, but I didn't even have so much as a nail left to stab my own skin. All of them were torn to the quick. I rubbed my raw fingertips, and a fierce ache shook my chest. It caught me by surprise, this small loss of my nails compared to the enormity of everything else. It was almost a mocking whisper that I had nothing, not even a fingernail, to defend myself. All I had was a secret name that seemed as useless to me right now as the title I was born with. Make it true, Lia, I told myself. But even as I said the words in my head, I felt my confidence ebbing. I had far more at stake now than I had just a few hours ago. Now my actions could hurt Rafe too.
Orders were given to unload the ill-gotten treasure and carry it inside, and boys younger than Eben scurried over with small two-wheeled carts to the sides of the wagon and helped the guards fill them. The chievdar and his personal guard dismounted and walked up steps that led to a long corridor. The boys followed behind, pushing the overflowing carts up a nearby ramp, their thin arms straining under the weight. Some of the booty in their loads was still stained with blood.
"That way to Sanctum Hall," Kaden said, pointing after the boys. Yes, nervous. I could hear it in his tone. If even he was afraid of the Komizar, what chance did I have?
I stopped and turned, trying to spot Rafe somewhere back in the line of soldiers still coming through the gate, but all I could see was Malich leading his horse, following close behind us. He grinned, his face still bearing the slash marks from my attack. "Welcome to Venda, Princess," he jeered. "I promise you, things will be very different now."
Kaden pulled me around keeping me close to his side. "Stay near," he whispered. "For your own good."
Malich laughed, reveling in his threat, but for once, I knew what he said was true. Everything was different now. More than Malich could even guess.