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Atop the merchant calls and sailor shouts and all the sounds bombarding her, there were just as many lies—startling after so many days at sea and in the wilderness.

Quickly enough, though, as always happened, the truths and the lies blended into a familiar cascade in the background. One easily ignored, easily forgotten, even as the Hell-Bards led Safi and Vaness into an open market.

Here, billowy awnings traipsed outward for almost as far as the eye could see.

“Anything a man desires can be bought in Saldonica.”

Safi twisted her stiff neck, glancing at Caden through the slits in her helm. He was pale, his face slick in a way that spoke of more than simple sweat from a summer’s day. His wound wasn’t doing well—and that made Safi happy.

He met her eyes with a slight bounce of his eyebrows. “And anything a man loathes can be sold here as well.”

“Is that a threat?”

“I don’t loathe you, Heretic. I simply follow orders—shit.” In a burst of speed, he shoved ahead of Safi, but since he still held her ropes, she was jerked around. Her shoulders almost tore from their sockets.

Pain flashed. A scream split her lips. Then she was dragging her feet, trying to keep up with Caden as he barreled forward.

He was too slow to stop it, though. The empress had fallen, knocked over by a passing cart. Not just any cart either, but one led by three men with the Baedyed standard on their gambesons.

Worse, Vaness’s helmet had fallen, leaving her reddened, sweat-slick face exposed to the world. To the three Baedyeds. She ducked, as if to hide her features, but the way she moved just a beat too slow—and the way she angled her body just far enough for the pirates to see her Witchmark tattoo—rang false against Safi’s senses.

Vaness wanted to be seen; she’d staged the entire accident, and now it was working. One of the Baedyeds was staring at her face, another at her hand, and the third was slipping away as if he had urgent business to attend elsewhere.

Urgent business that would get Safi and Vaness free from the Hell-Bards or urgent business that included killing the Marstoki empress, Safi couldn’t be sure. And there was no time to mull it over either, for Lev was forging a path down a narrow string of stalls, Zander was lifting the unresisting, rehelmeted empress, and Caden was prodding Safi forward into a breakneck pace behind them all.

* * *

The first inn the Hell-Bards approached was full. As was the next one, and the next three after that. It would seem there was an important holiday in two days, and thousands upon thousands had swarmed the city for an arena fight that happened every year. Baile’s Slaughter, they called it, and now the Pirate Republic of Saldonica was crammed full and bursting at the caulked seams.

Safi took note of that information for later use—just as she tried to record how the Baedyed territory was laid out and how soldiers roamed, clearly on the lookout for the Hell-Bards. For Vaness. Yet with his height, Zander always saw them coming. He’d lift one hand, and the Hell-Bards would break off onto a side street, Vaness and Safi in tow.

The sixth inn was an old tower repurposed into something livable, each level a different style of stone and wood and shutters. There, the Hell-Bards found a space to hole up, though for how long they planned to stay, Safi had no hint.

The room they rented was small and four stories up. Scarcely tall enough for Zander to walk through without crooking his head sideways. Not that it mattered, for as soon as the Hell-Bards led Safi and Vaness inside, the giant departed.

Two against two. Better odds, but still not great. Especially since Safi was dust from the inside out, and since Vaness immediately curled up for sleep on one side of the lone bed.

It wasn’t the fatigue in Safi’s limbs or lungs that hurt most. Nor even the blisters that had torn open on her heels and toes and ankles. Even the aches in her knee and foot were mostly ignorable.

But the rope-shredded skin beneath the linens, the way Safi could feel every fraying fiber still stuck in her flesh … Each step had sloughed off more skin and spread the wounds higher, higher up her arms and legs.

Safi waited, silent, while Caden eased the helmet from her head and the room’s full scope came into view: a single bed with a tan wool coverlet and a low stool beside it. A table and washbasin against the opposite wall, with what looked like a Waterwitched tap. Two oil lamp sconces above, and finally a window, without glass but with the shutter slats wide enough to let in the day’s breeze and sounds of revelry.

Nothing in the room was useful. At least not that Safi could spot through the exhaustion. There was, however, one interesting piece in the room, and that was a sign above the door that read ALWAYS, ALWAYS STAY THE NIGHT.

Safi had no idea what it meant.

As she stood there, a gentle pressure at her wrists drew her attention back to Caden. He was sawing off her ropes, and against her greatest wish, tears gathered in her eyes. Not from relief or gratitude, but from pain. A burst of it that clattered through her bones. “These need cleaning,” Caden said, and although there was no command in his tone, Lev immediately hopped to.

She left the room. Better odds.

“Sit,” Caden ordered, and Safi stumbled to the free side of the bed. It brought her closer to Vaness than she’d been since their capture. Hell-flames and demon-fire, the empress looked awful. Her shredded feet, her muddied legs and arms, and that colossal collar still locked around her neck.

Dizzy, Safi sank onto the bed’s edge; the empress didn’t stir, and it took all of Safi’s energy to keep her eyes open until Lev finally returned with soap and fresh linen strips.

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