“I’ll explain once we’re back at the tenement.”
“Hye, Admiral,” she murmured.
Merik’s shoulders tensed for his ears. It felt like a lifetime since anyone had called him that. He didn’t miss it.
Motioning for Cam to release him—he could walk on his own—Merik set off for the stone steps leading out of the canal. He owed the girl an apology. But not, he thought, an explanation. Stacia Sotar and the Fury, a shadow man with frozen winds, a dead vizer in the greenhouse—it wasn’t a story easily relayed like one of Cam’s melodic tales.
Besides, the less she knew, the safer she’d be.
As he walked, Cam scurrying behind, he re-created the greenhouse in his mind. He re-created the shadow man.
That creature had killed Vizer Linday as easily as Merik might crush a spider. If Merik hadn’t fled when he did, he would have been next.
He hated that fact more than anything else, but there it was: he could not face that monster alone. He could not fight that dark magic, could not stop that wrongness alone. Yet his city, his people … They needed Merik to do something.
So what was left, then, beyond staying the current course? Only with an entire contingent of trained witches and soldiers could Merik possibly hope to face that shadow man. To gain an army such as that, he would need to gain the throne—or at least to keep Vivia off of it.
It was sunrise by the time Merik and Cam made it into Old Town. The first beams of pink morning light glittered on puddles left from the night’s storm. Water splashed up from Cam’s steps, and Merik realized, his earlier shame doubling, that Cam was barefoot. She had been for weeks, and not once had she complained.
He’d noticed, of course, but there’d been so many other things to worry over. Not an excuse. Frowning, he fidgeted with his hood before ducking into the tenement. The halls were more crowded now, people off the streets seeking shelter for the night, and as he knew she would, always, always, Cam scampered just behind.
Upon reaching Kullen’s low door, Merik kicked all thoughts aside and focused on tapping out the lock-spell. His knuckles hurt more than he cared to consider, and his fingers were pruned from all that time in the canal.
“Oh, sir!” Cam scooted in close. “You’re bleeding again.”
“Hye.” Merik sighed. So tired. Stix’s ice had shredded his right forearm, and who knew what injuries the escape from shadow man had opened up? He felt nothing, though. It was all old blood.
“I have an Earthwitch healer salve, sir. I got it at Pin’s Keep.”
Merik swiveled wearily toward the girl, with words of gratitude rising to his lips.
Cam misread him. Her mismatched hands shot up. “I didn’t steal it, sir! My friends at Pin’s Keep gave it to me!”
“Oh … I … thank you,” he said at last, and he meant it. Though he hated that her first reaction was defensive—had he truly scolded her so much over the last two weeks that this was her first reaction?
After shoving into Kullen’s apartment and hissing for the lanterns to ignite, Merik shuffled to the sagging table. The bread from yesterday had soaked up the water, and though by no means soft, now it was at least edible.
He bit off a chunk before removing the wet map from his belt and smoothing it across the table. Then he forced himself to say, “I’m sorry if I worried you, Cam. As you can see, I’m fine.”
“You’re alive,” she accepted grudgingly, “but I wouldn’t say you’re fine. Water?” Her shadow stretched over the map, and a clay cup appeared before Merik.
“Thank you.” He took it, only to glimpse Cam’s wrist, puffy with fresh bruises. A cut stretched down her inner forearm. “What happened?”
“S’nothing, sir.” She sidled away, and before Merik could follow, her shadow returned. This time, with a ceramic jar. “The salve, sir. For your face … and everywhere else too.”
“You first.” He pushed to his feet.
She thrust out her jaw. “I said it’s nothing, sir. Just got cornered by the wrong sort near Pin’s Keep. You, meanwhile, were only Noden knows where getting your face pummeled by only Noden knows who, so that you could then leap into a canal and almost drown. I reckon if anyone’s owed a story here, it’s me.”
Merik hesitated, his fists tightening. Knuckles cracking. “Who cornered you?”
“You first,” she countered.
Merik made the mistake of meeting Cam’s eyes, where there was no missing the sharp stubbornness that burned within—one he knew well from a different friend. A different lifetime.
Merik sighed and plunked himself into his chair. “Sit,” he ordered. Cam sat. Merik downed the water she’d brought in two gulps and finally said, “What happened, Cam, was that I got caught because I’m a blighted fool. But Stix … that is to say, First Mate Sotar let me go once she realized I was the Fury.”
Cam shivered and hugged her arms to her chest. The bruises were hidden in that position. “But you’re not really the Fury, sir. If anything, you’re a ghost who should be dead a hundred times over.”
“The Hagfishes can have me,” Merik murmured, staring into the empty cup, “if they’ll release Kullen or Safiya or … any number of souls better than me.”
“You might feel that way,” Cam murmured, “but no one else does.”
Merik knocked at the table, at the map—anything to change the subject. “I found this on my sister’s desk at Pin’s Keep.”