Someone kneeling at the crown of my head curses in Sadhese. Cold steel digs into my throat.
“Jitan—the message. Is the bounty only given if he’s brought back alive?”
“I don’t bleeding remember!” This voice comes from closer to my feet.
“If you’re going to kill him, then at least wait a few days.” Laia’s voice has a cold practicality to it, but the tension beneath is as taut as the string of an oud. “In this weather his body would decompose fast. It will take at least five days to get him back to Serra. If the Martials can’t identify him, then neither of us gets any money.”
“Kill him, Shikaat,” says a third Tribesman standing near my knees. “If he wakes up, we’re dead.”
“He’s not going to wake up,” the man they call Shikaat says. “Look at him—he’s got an arm and a leg in the grave already.”
Laia slowly eases her body over my head. I feel glass between my lips. Liquid dribbles out—liquid that tastes of iron and herbs. Tellis extract. A second later the glass is gone, shoved back to where Laia must be hiding it.
“Shikaat, listen—” she begins, but the raider shoves her back.
“That’s the second time you’ve leaned forward like that, girl. What are you up to?”
Time’s up, Veturius.
“Nothing!” Laia says. “I want the bounty as much as you do!”
One: I imagine the attack first—where I will strike, how I will move.
“Why did you lean forward?” Shikaat roars at Laia. “And don’t lie to me.”
Two: I flex the muscles of my left arm to prepare it, as the right is trapped beneath me. I inhale silently to get breath to every part of my body.
“Where’s the Tellis extract?” Shikaat hisses, suddenly remembering. “Give it to me!”
Three: Before Laia can respond to the Tribesman, I shove my right foot against the ground for leverage and spin backward on my hip, away from Shikaat’s blade, taking out the Tribesman at my feet with my bound legs and rolling up as he slams to the ground. I lunge for the Tribesman at my knees next, head butting him before he can lift his blade. He drops it, and I turn to catch it, thankful that he at least kept it sharp. With two saws, I’m through the ropes on my wrists, and with two more, the one on my ankles. The first Tribesman I knocked over scrambles up and bolts out of the cave—no doubt to get backup.
I wheel toward the last Tribesman—Shikaat—who holds Laia against his chest. He has her wrists squeezed in one hand, a blade to her throat, and murder in his eyes.
“Drop the blade. Put your hands in the air. Or I kill her.”
“Go on then,” I say in perfect Sadhese. His jaw tightens, but he doesn’t move. A man not easily surprised. I consider my words carefully. “A second after you kill her, I’ll kill you. Then you’ll be dead, and I’ll be free.”
“Try me.” He digs the blade into Laia’s neck, drawing blood. Her eyes dart around as she tries to spot something—anything—she can use against him. “I have a hundred men outside this cave—”
“If you had a hundred men outside”—I keep my attention on Shikaat—“you’d have called them in alre—”
I fly forward mid-word, one of Grandfather’s favorite tricks. Fools pay attention to words in a fight, he said once. Warriors take advantage of them. I wrench the Tribesman’s right hand away from Laia while shoving her out of the way with my body.
Which, at that exact moment, turns traitor on me.
The adrenaline rush of the attack drains out of me like water down a sewer, and I stagger back, my vision doubling. Laia grabs something off the ground and spins round to the Tribesman, who grins at her nastily.
“Your hero still has poison running through him, girl,” he hisses. “He can’t help you now.”
He lunges at her, lashing out with the knife, aiming to kill her. Laia flings dirt into his eyes, and he roars, turning his face away. But he cannot stop the momentum of his body. Laia lifts her blade, and with a sickening squelch, the Tribesman impales himself upon it.
Laia gasps and releases the blade, backing away. Shikaat reaches out, grabbing her by the hair, and her mouth opens in a silent scream, her eyes fixed on the blade in the raider’s chest. She finds my face, terror in her own as with his last bit of life, Shikaat seeks to kill her.
Strength finally returns to my body, and I shove him away from her. He releases her, looking at his suddenly weak hand curiously, as if it doesn’t belong to him. Then he thuds to the ground, dead.
“Laia?” I call to her, but she stares at the body as if in a trance. Her first kill. My stomach twists in remembrance of my own first kill—a Barbarian boy. I recall his blue-painted face, the deep gash in his stomach. I know what Laia feels in this moment all too well. Disgust. Horror. Fear.
My energy comes back to me now. Everything is pain—my chest, my arms, my legs. But I am not seizing, I am not hallucinating. I call to Laia again, and this time she looks up.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she says. “He—he just came at me. And the knife—”
“I know,” I say gently. She won’t want to discuss it. Her mind is in survival mode—it won’t let her. “Tell me what happened in the Roost.” I can distract her, at least for a bit. “Tell me how you got the Tellis.”
She relates the tale swiftly, helping me bind the unconscious Tribesman as she does so. As I listen, I’m half in disbelief and half bursting with pride at her sheer nerve.