THERE WERE TIMES when Talis would see his face in her mind’s eye—his face as it had been, before she had changed it. It was strange, and more than a little annoying. She was not one to take any note of faces, least of all those of people she’d killed.
Still, his persisted. She had never learned his name, but his face was clear in her memory. The perfectly proportioned nose, the high cheekbones, the elegant jaw—and those eyes, blue and blue and blue, no matter how much light or shadow fell on them. It was a face with all the outward markers of beauty, but it had never fooled her, not even from the first. She had seen past it to the emptiness behind his eyes, the way his gaze fell on her without interest or empathy. To him she was no different from the grass they stood on or the sky overhead: an inanimate background to whatever world he lived in.
But not at the end. He had seen her, truly seen her, at the end. Perhaps that was what kept bothering her about him. It was unfair, she had thought even then. He was a man who had intended her only ill, who would have subdued her if he could have. It was unfair of him to look so lost at the end, like an innocent child.
Things were less than ideal in many ways. The wind was picking up, worrying at the edges of her consciousness with its vague whistle. It prickled at the back of her neck, made the skin of her arms clammy and cold. She had too much of Voltest’s influence with her today, making her irritable and on edge, too quick to startle, too quick to take offense. She could feel it lurking there, that anger, biding its time like a hunter in the brush. All it needed was a target.
Damn that man and his stupid face! She still couldn’t tell whether the persistence of that memory was the cause of this skittish anxiety or a result of it, but still it lingered, floating behind her eyelids as she picked her way forward in the deepening dusk.
If I trip because of him, she thought, I’d kill him twice.
The path wound around the side of what could only be charitably called a mountain; the terrain was rocky and treacherous, but the summit was fairly low, only twenty or thirty feet above her. She’d walked it countless times before: it led south, through Cutter’s Vale, which was usually the most deserted crossing between Lanvaldis (she wouldn’t call it Hallarnon, whatever the maps said) and Esthrades. Though the overcast sky and the fading light made for poor visibility, she could just make out the vale far below to her left, a brief reprieve of flat land before you had to walk up into the hills again. There seemed to be more people passing through than usual, though Talis couldn’t think why.
She had been born and raised in Lanvaldis, and though she would never have called herself King Eira’s most loyal subject, she had an attachment to this country—stubborn and possessive more than affectionate, but there it was. It burned her to know her country had fallen under Elgar’s sway, that, despite their power, she and Voltest had not been able to stall his plans to their satisfaction. Worse, the hesitation that had plagued Elgar after the Lanvaldian war seemed finally to have left him: Voltest was certain he would move imminently to conquer Reglay, and Voltest’s information was never wrong. That left only Esthrades and Issamira free and clear of him, so to Esthrades Talis went. Perhaps there, in a country ruled by a rumored sorceress, she would find something more promising.
She was able to overtake most of the travelers in her way, silent stragglers fighting their way onward in ones and twos. But when she tried to pass a particularly weary-looking one, a slender boy struggling with a heavy satchel, she realized he was actually the slowest member of a group of three. The other two fanned outward, making it difficult for her to get past them, and she swallowed her irritation. She knew she wasn’t really angry at them.
Their leader, a blond fellow who looked about eighteen or nineteen, called back to the boy with the satchel—a year or two younger than he was, with a long braid of hair so pale it was almost white. “You all right, Hywel? We’re almost to the border.”
The boy was breathing hard, but he drew himself up bravely. “I’m all right. Like you said, not long now.”
“We’ll make camp once we’re well across. But let me know if you need me to take a few more of them. I doubt her ladyship will care who—”
He shut his mouth when the only woman in the group jerked her head hard at Talis, and then all three of them were looking at her. The woman’s brown hair was cut short in back, but her bangs had been swept to either side and allowed to grow nearly to her chin. She tugged on them with one hand as she addressed the leader: “Seems she’s trying to get past.” Her point wasn’t politeness, of course, but a desire to get Talis out of their midst.
The leader laughed. “You’re in quite a hurry.”
He hadn’t meant it to sound condescending, Talis told herself, soothing the fire in the pit of her stomach. “There’s nowhere I need to be. I simply walk quickly.” She brushed past them, heading down the slope—and stopped, because she could finally make out the reason for the clogged foot traffic through the vale. There were soldiers down there, clad in the crestless blue-black that marked them out as Imperator Elgar’s men. The travelers ahead of them had been slowed down by the soldiers’ importunement, and they’d clustered up as they waited to pass through.
Copyright © 2020 by Isabelle Steiger