A chuckle from Caden, though if he smiled along with that sound, Safi missed it. “If you marry him, you could help Cartorra. You could help Hasstrel.”
“They don’t need me.” She barely got the words through her clenched teeth. Caden had moved from her ankles to her soles, and somehow, they were worse. “Why do you even care about Hasstrel?”
“I grew up nearby.”
“Then you should know how awful the Orhin Mountains are—and how small-minded its people. They love living under Emperor Henrick’s yoke.”
“And you should know how callow that sounds.” A hardness laced Caden’s words now. The first flare of anything close to emotion. Good to know. Yet none of his frustration affected his methodical washing of Safi’s feet. “Cartorra has its flaws, Heretic, but it also has safety. Food too, as well as wealth, roads, education. I could keep going, for the list is long. Give me your wrists.”
Safi did, her eyes screwing shut at that first slash of contact. Pain came. Pain receded. “But,” she forced herself to say, clinging to the conversation, “you won’t find freedom on your list, will you?”
“There are degrees of freedom. Complete freedom isn’t always good, nor is the lack of it always bad.”
“Easy for you to say when you’re not the one being held against your will.”
Again, the laugh, and Caden’s eyes—bloodshot, thoughtful—lifted to hers. “You really have no idea, do you?”
But he had already moved on. “There are degrees of everything, Heretic, which I know doesn’t fit well into your true-or-false view of the world.”
“That’s not how my magic works.” Not entirely.
“Then tell me,” he said.
Safi pinched her lips together, hesitating. She’d spent so long hiding her magic from the world. From the very man now kneeling before her … Though she supposed there was no point in hiding her power now. Not when the emperor and the Hell-Bards had already won.
“Everyone lies,” she finally said.
“I don’t.” He popped the cork from the healer salve, and with a clean linen, he scooped some out.
The instant it touched her wrists, the pain receded. Cold fizzed in.
“Of course you lie,” she argued, eyes closing to savor the cool relief. “I told you, Hell-Bard. Everyone lies. It’s in the way we banter with our friends. It’s in the mundane greetings we give passersby. It’s in the most meaningless things we do every single moment of every single day. Hundreds upon thousands of tiny, inconsequential lies.”
Caden’s careful application paused. “And do you sense them all?”
She nodded, eyelids lifting just enough for her to meet his unflappable gaze. “It’s like living beside the ocean. The waves eventually fade into nothing because you’re so used to it. You stop hearing each crash, each swell … Until, one day, when a storm comes along. The big lies—I feel those. But the little ones? They ride away on the tide.”
He offered no reaction, his face utterly still as if he was thinking through each sentence. Each word. Each pause. Yet before he could offer a response, a double knock came at the door.
“S’me, sir,” Lev called.
Caden pushed to his feet, the duty and the focus instantly returning to the slant of his shoulders. He handed Safi the jar and the salve-covered linen before stepping to the door.
Lev strode in. “Zander and I finished checking the bathhouse behind the inn, sir. It’s safe for me to take the ladies for washing up.” She swung a thumb toward the window. “Then you and Zander can set the wards and look for the ship while we’re out.”
“Good enough.” Caden swooped up his undershirt and shrugged it on. “I’ll help you escort the women down … what?”
Lev had her eyebrows high. “I was just thinking that … that maybe you and Zander could manage a bath today too?”
“I just washed off.”
“Not well enough, you didn’t. And we’re the ones who gotta suffer through your stench.”
It was too good for Safi to resist. “She means to say you smell like the inside of dead dog’s bum.”
“Noted,” Caden declared at the same time Lev exclaimed, “Why, listen to that mountain accent. You sound worse than he does!”
A flush roared up Safi’s cheeks. Shit clogging up the storm drain. It had been so long since she had spoken Cartorran. The Orhin accent must have crept onto her words, and now Caden was smiling while he fastened his sword belt to his waist. A real smile, like the Chiseled Cheater she’d met over a card game. Sly, private …
And reminding Safi that he was the enemy. That he was the reason her life had turned to ash. She couldn’t let herself forget that. These people were her oppenents, and escape was all that mattered.
Iseult awoke to find her left hand completely numb. She’d slept in miserable spurts ever since her encounter with Esme, but the last spurt had melted into several awkwardly posed hours with her arm pinned beneath her hip.
She shifted her weight, using her right hand to move her left … and then to heft her body around. Gauzy pink light filtered into the mossy overhang that she and the Bloodwitch had shared. The air was moist with yesterday’s rain, but warm, and Aeduan’s soft, steady breaths puffed mere paces away.
Heat flashed in her chest. How could the Bloodwitch be sleeping? He should have woken Iseult so she could keep watch.