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There were advantages to being a dead man.
Merik Nihar, prince of Nubrevna and former admiral to the Nubrevnan navy, wished he’d considered dying a long time ago. He got so much more done as a corpse.
Such as right now. He’d come to Judgment Square at the heart of Lovats for a reason, and that reason was tucked inside a low hut, an extension of the prison behind it, where records were kept. There was one prisoner in particular Merik needed information on. A prisoner with no left pinkie, who now resided beyond the final shelf, deep in Noden’s watery Hell.
Merik sank into the hood of his tan cloak. True, his face was scarcely recognizable thanks to the burns, and his hair was only just beginning to grow back, but the covering offered safety in the madness of Judgment Square.
Or Goshorn Square, as it was sometimes called, thanks to the enormous goshorn oak at the center.
The pale trunk, as wide as a lighthouse and easily as tall, was dented to high hell-waters, and its branches hadn’t seen green in decades. That tree, Merik thought, as he eyed the longest branch, looks like it might soon join me in death.
All day long, tides of traffic poured through the square, driven by curiosity. Who would be forced into public shame? Shackled to the stones without food or reprieve? Who would feel the burning snap of a rope—followed by the cold kiss of Noden’s Hagfishes?
Desperation brought people in droves. Families came to beg the Nubrevnan soldiers for mercy on their loved ones, and the homeless came to beg for food, for shelter, for pity of any kind.
But no one had pity or mercy to spare these days. Not even Merik Nihar.
He’d already done all he could—given up all he could for a trade agreement with the Hasstrel estate in Cartorra. He’d almost negotiated one with the Marstoks as well, but ultimately death had come too soon.
A family blocked Merik’s way now. A woman and her two boys, each of them shouting at anyone who passed by.
“No crime in being hungry!” they hollered in unison. “Free us and feed us! Free us and feed us!” The older boy, wildly tall and skinny as a brittlestar, rounded on Merik.
“No crime in being hungry!” He heaved in close. “Free us and feed—”
Merik sidestepped the boy before twirling left around his brother and finally shooting past the mother. She was the loudest of the three, with her sun-bleached hair and a face lined with fury.
Merik knew that feeling well, for it was fury that fueled him ever onward. Even as pain cut through his body and blisterings on his chest were scraped open by homespun.
Others in the area picked up the chant. Free us and feed us! No crime in being hungry! Merik found his steps settling into a quick clip to match the rhythm of that cry. So few people in the Witchlands had magic, much less magic of any real use. They survived by the whim of nature—or the whim of witches—and their own unrelenting grit.
Merik reached the gallows at the oak’s fat trunk. Six ropes dangled from a middle branch, limp coils in the midmorning heat. Yet as Merik tried to skirt the empty stage, he caught sight of a tall figure, pale-headed and hulkingly framed.
Kullen. The name grazed across Merik’s heart, sucking the air from his lungs before his brain could catch up and say, No, not Kullen. Never Kullen.
For Kullen had cleaved in Lejna two weeks ago. He had died in Lejna two weeks ago. He would never be coming back.
Without thinking, Merik’s fists shot out. He punched the gallows stage, pain bursting in his knuckles—at once grounding. At once real.
Again he punched. Harder this time, wondering why his insides spun. He had paid his dues to Kullen’s ghost. He had bought that shrine on the hillside, using the one remaining gold button from his admiral’s coat, and he’d prayed for the Hagfishes to give Kullen quick passage beyond the final shelf.
After that, it was supposed to stop hurting. This was supposed to stop hurting.
Eventually, the tall figure was gone and Merik’s bleeding knuckles stung more brightly than the past. Merik forced himself onward, elbows out and hood low. For if Safiya fon Hasstrel could reach that pier in Lejna despite Marstoks and Cleaved in her way—if she could do all that for a nation that wasn’t even her own, for a trade agreement with her family—then Merik could certainly finish what he’d come here to do.
Curse his mind for going to her, though. Merik had done so well at avoiding memories of Safi since the explosion. Since his old world had ended and this new one had begun. Not because he didn’t want to think about her. Noden save him, but that last moment he’d shared with her …
No, no—Merik would not dwell. There was no point in remembering the taste of Safi’s skin against his lips, not when his lips were now broken. Not when his entire body was ruined and wretched to behold.
Besides, dead men weren’t supposed to care.
On he charged through filth and body odor. A tide that fought back. A storm with no eye. Each smack of limbs against Merik’s shoulders or hands sent pain scuttling through him.
He reached the irons. Fifty prisoners waited here, shackled to the stones and crispy from the sun. A fence surrounded them, indifferent to the people pressing in from the outside.
They begged the guards to give their sons water. Their wives shade. Their fathers release. Yet the two soldiers who waited at the fence’s gate—inside, to keep from being trampled—showed no more interest in the hungry of Lovats than they did the prisoners they were meant to guard.
In fact, so bored were these two soldiers that they played taro to while away the time. One wore an iris-blue strip of cloth at his biceps, a mourning band to show respect for his dead prince. The other kept the band draped across a knee.
At the sight of that cloth—just lying there, unused—a fresh, furious wind ignited in Merik’s chest. He had given so much for Nubrevna, and this was all it had earned him: a hollow, false grief. Outward shows, like the wreaths and streamers draped across the city, that couldn’t truly mask how little anyone cared their prince was dead.
Vivia had seen to that.
Thank Noden, Merik soon arrived at the hut, for he could keep his winds and temper contained for only so long—and the fuse was almost burned up.
The crowds spat him out before orange walls streaked in bird shit, and Merik cut toward a door on the south side. Always locked, but not impenetrable.
“Open up!” Merik bellowed. He knocked once at the door—a mistake. The newly splintered skin on his knuckles sloughed off. “I know you’re in there!”
No response. At least none that Merik could hear, but that was all right. He let the heat in his body grow. Strengthen. Gust.
Then he knocked again, feeling the wind curl around him as he did so. “Hurry! It’s madness out here!”
The latch jiggled. The door creaked back … And Merik shoved in. With fists, with force, with wind.
The soldier on the other side stood no chance. He toppled back, the whole hut shuddering from the force of his fall. Before he could rise, Merik had the door closed behind him. He advanced on the man, his winds chasing. Tearing up papers in a cyclone that felt so blighted good.
It had been too long since Merik had let his winds unfurl and his magic stretch wide. Fire built in his belly, a rage that blustered and blew. That had kept his stomach full when food had not. Air billowed around him, sweeping in and out in time to his breaths.
The soldier—middle-aged, sallow-skinned—stayed on the ground with his hands to protect his face. Clearly, he’d decided surrender was his safest option.
Too bad. Merik would’ve loved a fight. Instead, he forced his eyes to scour the room. He used his winds too, coaxing them outward. Letting the vibrations on the air tell him where other bodies might wait. Where other breaths might curl. Yet no one hid in the dark corners, and the door into the main prison remained firmly shut.
So at last, with careful control, Merik returned his attention to the soldier. His magic softened, dropping papers to the floor before he eased off his hood, fighting the pain that skittered down his scalp.
Then Merik waited, to see if the soldier would recognize him.
Nothing. In fact, the instant the man lowered his hands, he shrank back. “What are you?”
“Angry.” Merik advanced a single step. “I seek someone recently released from a second time in the irons.”
The man shot a scattered glance around the room. “I’ll need more information. Sir. An age or crime or release date—”
“I don’t have that.” Merik claimed another step forward, and this time the soldier frantically scrambled upright. Away from Merik and grabbing for the nearest papers.
“I met this prisoner”—I killed this prisoner—“eleven days ago.” Merik paused, thinking back to the moonbeam. “He was brown-skinned with long black hair, and he had two stripes tattooed beneath his left eye.”
Two stripes. Two times in the Judgment Square irons.
“And…” Merik lifted his left hand. The skin bore shades of healing red and brown, except where new blood cracked along his knuckles. “The prisoner had no pinkie.”
“Garren Leeri!” the soldier cried, nodding. “I remember him, all right. He was part of the Nines, back before we cracked down on the Skulks’ gangs. Though the second time we arrested him, it was for petty theft.”
“Indeed. And what exactly happened to Garren after his time was served?”
“He was sold, sir.”
Merik’s nostrils flared. Sold was not something he’d known could happen to prisoners, and with that thought, disgusted heat awoke in his lungs. Merik didn’t fight it—he simply let it kick out to rattle the papers near his feet.
One such paper flipped up, slapping against the soldier’s shin. In an instant, the man was trembling again. “It doesn’t happen often. Sir. Selling people, I mean. Just when we’ve no room in the prison—and we only sell people convicted for petty crimes. They work off their time instead.”
“And to whom”—Merik dipped his head sideways—“did you sell this man named Garren?”
“To Pin’s Keep, sir. They regularly buy prisoners to work the clinic. Give them second chances.”
“Ah.” Merik could barely bite back a smile. Pin’s Keep was a shelter for the poorest of Lovats. It had been a project of Merik’s mother, and upon the queen’s death, it had passed directly to Vivia.
How easy. Just like that, Merik had the found the sinew binding Garren to Vivia. All he lacked was tangible proof—something physical that he could hand to the High Council showing, beyond any doubt, that his sister was a murderer. That she was not fit to rule.
Now he had a lead. A good one.
Before Merik could loose a smile, the sound of metal scraping on wood filled the room.
Merik turned as the outside door swung in and met the eyes of a startled young guard.
Well, this was unfortunate.
For the guard.
Out snapped Merik’s winds, grabbing the guard like a doll. Then in they whipped, and he was flung straight for Merik.
Whose fist was ready.
Merik’s torn knuckles connected with the guard’s jaw. Full speed. A hurricane against a mountain. The guard was out in an instant, and as his limp form crumpled, Merik threw a glance at the first soldier.
But the older man was at the door to the prison now, fumbling with a lock to escape and muttering, “Too old for this. Too old for this.”
Hell-waters. A flash of guilt hit Merik’s chest. He had what he’d come for, and hanging around was simply asking for more trouble. So he left the soldier to his escape and slung toward the hut’s open door.
Only to stop halfway as a screeching woman tumbled inside. “There’s no crime in being hungry! Free us and feed us!”
It was that woman, and her two sons straggled in behind. Noden hang him, but hadn’t Merik had enough interruptions for one day?
The answer was no, apparently he had not.
Upon spotting the unconscious guard and then Merik’s unhooded face, the woman fell completely silent. Totally still. There was something in her bloodshot eyes, something hopeful.
“You,” she breathed. Then she stumbled forward, arms outstretched. “Please, Fury, we’ve done nothing wrong.”
Merik yanked up his hood, the pain briefly louder than any sounds. Brighter too, even as the woman and her sons closed in.
Her hands grabbed Merik’s hand. “Please, Fury!” she repeated, and inwardly Merik winced at that title. Was he truly so grotesque? “Please, sir! We’ve been good and given our respects to your shrine! We don’t deserve your wrath—we just want to feed our families!”
Merik tore himself free. Skin split beneath her fingernails. Any moment now, soldiers would be pouring in from the records office, and though Merik could fight these boys and their mother, that would only draw attention.
“Free us and feed us, you said?” Merik scooped a ring of keys from the unconscious guard’s belt. “Take these.”
The cursed woman cowered back from Merik’s outstretched hand.
And now he was out of time. The familiar sound of a wind-drum was booming outside. Soldiers needed, said the beat, in Judgment Square.
So Merik flung the keys at the nearest son, who caught them clumsily. “Free the prisoners if you want, but be quick about it. Because now would be a good time for all of us to run.”
Then Merik thrust into the crowds, bobbing low and moving fast. For though the woman and her sons lacked the good sense to flee, Merik Nihar did not.
After all, even dead men could have lives they didn’t want to lose.
Copyright © 2016 by Susan Dennard