Descending the steep hillside was slow. A constant back-and-forth in the only way the terrain would allow. Finally, the first monoliths crooked up from the earth, and the ground flattened into narrow, overgrown steppes. Here, men had carved the cliff to their liking. Here, enormous cypresses had taken root unimpeded.
The Threadwitch never spoke on the hike. Her breath came in curt gulps. She clearly needed rest; she clearly needed food. So though Aeduan’s muscles sang with the urge to move faster, he kept his pace slow. Manageable.
Until they finally reached the heart of the ruins. It was the only space with four walls still standing. Admittedly, vines and mushrooms had laid claim to the granite and there was no roof to top it off, but walls were walls. Most people liked them.
Then again, the Threadwitch wasn’t most people.
She sank to the stone and mud-earth and hugged her knees to her chest. Despite the heat sweltering here, she shivered.
“Why does he hunt you?” Aeduan’s hoarse words split the living silence of the place.
“Who?” the Threadwitch asked, her voice haggard and muffled by her knees. She lifted her head. There was a cut on her brow that Aeduan hadn’t seen before.
“The Purist priest,” Aeduan answered. “Corlant.”
To his surprise, her breath hitched. She clutched at her right biceps, and something like fear flashed across her face.
It was the most expressive he’d ever seen the Threadwitch. A sign her careful control had crumbled beneath exhaustion. Aeduan hadn’t known it was possible.
This girl had fought Aeduan—tricked him and broken his spine. She had battled city guards and faced cleaved Poisonwitches head-on, yet never had Aeduan seen her show fear.
“You know him, then,” Aeduan said.
“How,” she clearly had to concentrate to get that word out, “do you know him?”
Aeduan hesitated. For several moments, there was no sound beyond the distant waterfall. No movement beyond the breeze towing at the branches overhead.
Aeduan hovered under Lady Fate’s knife. The question was, which side of the blade would hurt less? To tell Iseult the truth about Corlant and the arrowhead would mean that any betrayal Aeduan might have had planned would be impossible.
Yet to keep the arrowhead a secret would guarantee that more men like the Red Sails would follow. Aeduan couldn’t spend every moment by Iseult’s side, and if one of Corlant’s other dogs caught up again—if he lost her to the Red Sails … to that Firewitch—then he would lose his silver too.
He pulled the arrowhead from his pocket. “Corlant hired me,” he explained brusquely, “before I encountered you. He wanted me to find you and bring you to him. Alive.” Cautiously, Aeduan inched toward the Threadwitch, expecting her to cower.
She didn’t. Of course she didn’t. She merely rubbed her biceps, and once Aeduan was close enough, she plucked the arrowhead from his waiting hand.
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked.
“Because my silver talers are worth more to me than what the priest is offering. And because I am not the only person Corlant has hired to find you. Those men work for him, and I assume there will be more.”
Iseult stared at Aeduan, posture swaying. Face crumpling. Then she began to laugh.
It was unlike any sound Aeduan had ever heard. Not a pretty twinkle like the wealthy wives in Veñaza City, who kept amusement contained and wielded it like a weapon. Nor a raucous guffaw from someone who laughed freely, openly, often.
This was a shrill, breathy sound, part warbling trill and part frantic gasp. It was not a pleasant sound; it did not invite others to join.
“Dumb luck,” she choked out. “That’s what keeps saving me, Bloodwitch. Pure. Dumb. Luck.” For the first time since partnering with her, the Threadwitch slipped into Dalmotti. “Goddess above, it’s right there in the phrase, isn’t it? ‘Dumb luck.’ Choose the stupidest option, and Lady Fate will reward you.
“I should be dead, Bloodwitch. I should be shredded upon the stones or pummeled beneath the waterfall. But I’m not. And Corlant? H-he tried to kill me before. With this arrow.” She held it up, eyes fixed on it. “And he cursed it too. So if the wound didn’t kill me, the c-c-curse would. Yet somehow, I survived.”
Iseult’s laughter weakened. Then rattled off completely. “You’ve been there all along, Bloodwitch. Somewhere, l-lurking. You are the reason I had to go to my tribe—which means you are the reason Corlant c-c-could attack. So if I had never met you, then would I even be here right now?”
Aeduan’s eyes thinned—not because of what she said but rather how she chose to say it. She was blaming him for the Purist priest Corlant. Blaming him for everything, yet it wasn’t as if he had asked for this either.
“If I had never met you,” he countered coolly, “then my spine would never have snapped, and Leopold fon Cartorra would never have hired me. Monk Evrane would not have almost died, and I would not be forced to work for—”
“Monk Evrane lives?” The Threadwitch pushed to her feet, a new expression washing away her hysteria: eyes huge, lips parted. Hope. “I thought the Cleaved had claimed her in Lejna. But … she lives?”
At Aeduan’s nod, Iseult’s head tipped back. Her eyes closed. When she spoke again, it was in Nomatsi, once more and with no stutter to trip her words. “Whatever has happened between us,” she said evenly, “whatever events have passed to lead us here, they cannot be undone. And now I owe you my life. Twice.”