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Tavia stroked her knife, waiting.
The moon was like a beam, casting far too much light on the uneven streets, forcing the shadows to retreat and leaving little space for anyone who might want to hide.
And these days, people needed all the hiding places they could get.
The street was empty, save for Tavia, and too quiet for it to be anything other than purposeful. She pulled up her hood.
This was the place.
Tavia knew a lie when she heard one—after all, she’d worked for the infamous Wesley Thornton Walcott, who was probably the best liar out there—and that skittish little Rishiyat busker hadn’t been lying when Tavia held a mirror doll to the skies and scraped her knife against its carved face. He hadn’t been lying when that same cut appeared across his own cheek and when his eyes widened as Tavia moved the knife to the doll’s neck.
And he certainly hadn’t been lying when she punched him in the face.
This was the spot.
Tavia wiped at her forehead.
The winds of Rishiya were too warm for her taste. She missed the biting edge of Creijen winter. Rishiya was a garden of buildings, with flowers falling from rooftops and vines curling around windows. The streets were filled with crisp leaves and smooth tree roots that coiled across the city and around the narrow rivers that hosted modest floating railways, the banks of which were amassed in purple holly and wildflowers.
And the ivy towns—where she had stolen her share of wallets while tightening her plan earlier that day—were bright and beautiful in a way that made Tavia feel just how rough her edges were.
But she wasn’t in Creije anymore and she could never go back.
The Kingpin had seen to that.
Tavia checked her timepiece as the busker approached.
He was tall and stocky, with a wide jaw and dark eyes. His face matched the description, and the way he walked toward her, untouchable, and so similarly to the way Tavia knew she had walked the streets of Creije, told her this was her guy.
Tavia smiled as he got closer.
Exactly two hours after sundown, just like her source had promised. Rishiya’s best busker was prompt—he liked routine.
What a moron.
Keep them guessing. Don’t do what’s expected. Never let yourself get predictable.
Wesley had taught her the most important lesson a busker could know: how to be invisible.
“If you’re not looking for me, then you should be,” Nolan said, all bright teeth and smarmy eyebrows. “I’m about to give you a wild night.”
Definitely not invisible.
“So what’s your poison?”
“My poison,” Tavia repeated, as though she was pondering it. “I’m a little particular. What have you got?”
“Anything,” Nolan said. “Everything.”
“That’s a big promise to make.”
Nolan took off his backpack and held it up like a trophy.
“There’s not a single piece of magic in all of Rishiya that I ain’t got tucked away. Any charm or trick you want, for the right price.”
“So much magic in such a little bag,” Tavia said. “You sure seem confident.”
“Ever heard of a relativity charm?” Nolan asked. He tapped his backpack twice. “This baby can hold three times what it should.”
Moron. Moron. Moron.
“You have any time magic in there?”
“Sure do. Looking to undo the last few days?” Nolan asked.
Which was silly, because you could barely rewind a few minutes with the best time charms out there. Tavia didn’t want to erase the past: She wanted to disrupt it.
Time will be carried in strange hands
across the realms and through stranger lands.
What is done will be undone,
a battle lost is a battle won.
That was the prediction she had heard from the fortune orb Wesley helped her create, and though Tavia didn’t care much for prophecy, she could hardly ignore it. After all, the time barrels they had built to freeze the Kingpin’s army had jolted something inside the old man, too.
Impossibly, it had hurt him.
They had made him run, and even if Tavia didn’t put much stock in prophecy, she sure as shit put stock in people running away.
Whether Karam or the others agreed with her, it didn’t matter.
Tavia knew what she was doing and she knew what they needed.
“I’ve got a memory serum,” Nolan said. “Want to erase days or years? I’ve got it all. Whether it’s you who wants to forget, or if you’ve got someone else’s mind to play with.”
Tavia pretended to look bored at the thought and let her eyes scan the streets as if she was looking for another busker.
Give up the goods, Nolan, she thought. You know you want to.
“Or maybe you know someone who misses the glory years,” Nolan said, inching closer to her, desperate not to lose a sale.
Tavia understood that urge better than most.
“I’ve got something that can make people young as we are, younger even. Turn back their body clock for a whole day. And it can be all yours,” Nolan said.
Tavia offered him a coy smile. “All mine?” she asked. “By the gods?”
“As long as you have money to spend,” Nolan said. “You do have money to spend, don’t you? I ain’t got patience for time wasters.”
Tavia reached into her pocket.
She had money all right. And though it wasn’t hers—a technicality at best—she was ready to spend it.
Just not on this guy and his magic.
Tavia pulled out her gun.
“Great sales pitch,” she said. “I think you’ve inspired me to take the lot as a contribution to our war effort.”
Nolan’s face shifted, eyes narrowing as Tavia gripped the bone gun tighter, taking aim.
Wesley’s gun still felt odd in her hand, more delicate than she was used to and shaped in a way that didn’t quite fit her grasp. Maybe it had been made for him or, even if it hadn’t, it had carved itself around him, taking the shape Wesley wanted and molding itself to whatever he needed.
Wesley had that kind of effect.
“You’re one of the people trying to go against the Kingpin,” Nolan said. His mouth twisted into a sneer. “Haven’t you heard? Dante Ashwood is fixing to tear down anyone who gets in the way of his new realm. Doyen Schulze can’t stop him. You’re on the wrong side and you don’t have what it takes to win.”
“We’ll see about that,” she said. “Now hand over your backpack while I’m being nice enough to let you live.”
Nolan laughed and stepped forward so the gun was pressed right to his chest. “How about you run along while I’m being nice enough to let you live,” he said. “You don’t have the stones to kill me. I can see it in your eyes.”
He wasn’t exactly wrong.
Shooting people wasn’t Tavia’s style, and killing a busker on the streets to steal his magic seemed excessive. She’d hoped the gun would scare him into submission, since she wasn’t sure she could take him on in a fight. Tavia had always been better with magic than her fists, but the last thing she wanted was to waste good magic trying to rob him. They needed all the charms they could get these days.
“So that’s a no to being robbed at gunpoint, then?” she asked. “Fair enough. I’ll admit it was a bit much. Luckily, I have a Plan B.”
Tavia took a step back—because she was not about to let this amateur snatch her weapon—and reached into her pocket with her free hand, keeping her eyes on Nolan to make sure he didn’t try anything. Tavia was still as alert and quick as Wesley had taught her to be.
She may have spent the last week in a forest, but she wasn’t rusty enough to let her guard down.
“A Plan B,” Nolan repeated. “To shooting me?”
“A girl has to have her options,” she said.
She squeezed the charm in her fingers, letting the magic wash over her with a familiar warmth. At first, it felt like it was pulling at her insides, tugging the skin from her bones and the nails from her fingertips. Her hands shook, her joints locked, and Tavia’s eyes flickered until all she could see was pure, blinding white.
When the realms finally shifted back into color, Tavia was not alone.
In fact, she was surrounded by six more versions of herself.
All the Tavias stood with their black hair carving across their chins, gray eyes daring as they pulled knives from their pockets and guns from their belts and ran fingers over brightly polished knuckle dusters.
They circled Nolan with that same slow smile.
Tavia could feel them each at the corners of her mind, taking a small piece of her for themselves. She didn’t need to think about what she wanted them to do because they were already inside her mind, predicting her actions and readying to do what she needed.
Duplicate charms were a real party and just the latest in a line of new magic the Crafters in their camp had created.
Tavia could get used to the power amp.
“Guess you’re outnumbered now,” Tavia said. “And maybe I couldn’t take you alone in a fight, but I bet the seven of us could kick the crap out of you no problem.”
Nolan’s eyes were wide, his voice breathy with disbelief. “What in the name of the Many Gods is this?”
“Magic,” Tavia said.
And with enough force to make even Karam crack a smile, she hit Nolan square across the jaw.
He went down in an instant, his backpack dropping onto the ground beside him.
“You’re going to pay for that,” he said, clutching his jaw. “My underboss taught me how to—”
“Let me tell you about my underboss,” Tavia said.
She knelt down beside him and her many selves smiled onward in encouragement.
“His name was Wesley Thornton Walcott, and do you want to know what he taught me?”
It was enough of an answer. Wesley’s name was legend in the realm and synonymous with awful things Tavia preferred not to think about.
She snatched Nolan’s backpack from the ground and stood.
“This is the part where I thank you for your donation to our war effort,” Tavia said, tapping the backpack just like Nolan had. “All the tricks and charms of Rishiya. All the magic I could ever hope for. What a steal.”
“Laugh all you want for now,” Nolan said. “But when the Kingpin tears apart your city and burns everyone in it, I’ll be there. I’ll be by his side with the loyal buskers, and not even your big bad underboss will be able to stop the fire-gates from raining down on you and everyone you love.”
She didn’t want his words to hit close to home, but they did.
Dante Ashwood was already attacking districts within Creije and ripping apart everything about the city that Tavia had fallen in love with.
It was her home.
And right now she was powerless to save it.
Without her ruthless underboss to lead the buskers, Tavia was the only one left to fill the shoes of leadership among the crooks they had gathered, and yet she couldn’t even put a bullet in a guy like Nolan.
Wesley wouldn’t have hesitated. He wouldn’t have stopped to chat and trade blows.
“Save your breath,” Tavia said, trying to paint on her old smile. “You’re going to need it for the long walk back to your underboss. I doubt he’ll be happy that you got boosted on your own territory. Looks like you’re in for a heap of trouble from dear old Casim.”
She hitched the backpack onto her shoulder and turned from Nolan, her many selves following the action in a perfect reflection.
Only, there were now a dozen Rishiyat buskers standing in front of her, armed to the teeth with magic and guns. And not a one of them looked happy to see her.
“You need a hand, Nolan?” one of them asked.
From behind Tavia, the busker’s laugh echoed.
“Now who’s outnumbered?” Nolan said.
And then his friends charged at her.
For a moment Tavia had almost forgotten that she wasn’t alone, before the six other versions of herself jumped in the way. They met Nolan’s friends with fists and knives, taking on two or three each and creating a blockade between the buskers and Tavia.
Her many selves may not have had magic of their own, but they could pull a better punch than she could.
Tavia smiled onward at them, feeling an odd sense of pride, but she had only a few seconds to live in that moment before she felt herself being pulled violently back.
Nolan was yanking at her hair, keeping Tavia pressed against him. She wriggled against his grip, but the bastard was strong and the more she struggled, the more he pulled. The more his chest seemed to bounce with laughter.
“You’re not so cocky now, are you?” he whispered in her ear.
His breath was warm and damp, and Tavia flinched away.
Nolan pushed his knife to her throat, pressing it with enough force that Tavia felt the blade draw a small line of blood across her neck. It dripped down to her chest.
At that, her duplicate selves paused slightly, twitched, as though the blade had touched them, too.
She needed focus for them to work properly. She needed to not be distracted by a blade at her damn throat.
“Any last words?” Nolan asked.
“Yeah,” Tavia said. The blade nicked her again as she spoke. “Never get this close to an enemy.”
She threw her head back, skull cracking into Nolan’s lip. His teeth dug into her and she felt the moment his blood sprayed outward onto the back of her neck.
Nolan screamed and fell to the ground, and Tavia didn’t hesitate before she grabbed the backpack from where it had fallen beside him.
“You stupid little b—”
Tavia didn’t wait to hear the end of that sentence.
She ran, faster than she’d ever run before.
She could still hear her six duplicate selves struggling to fight off the attackers, their grunts growing fainter with each step she took.
It was not the best situation she had ever put herself in.
Especially since duplicate charms didn’t last long and once the Rishiyat buskers had destroyed her magic selves, they were going to haul ass to catch up with her and tear her a new one.
Tavia almost regretted going at this alone. Karam had warned her that leaving camp unsupervised would be dangerous. Bringing a busker or two along for the ride would’ve been the smart play, but Tavia had to show them that she could get things sorted alone. That they could rely on her to do whatever needed to be done. She couldn’t lead people if she was always relying on them to help her.
Anyway, there were worse things than being killed, and one of them was knowing that Karam was right.
Tavia rounded a corner, breathless.
She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep running, and she really didn’t want to resort to using her newly stolen magic to escape.
She needed it.
Their army needed it.
Not just the time charms, but the rest, too. Every new busker they recruited needed new magic to protect themselves against Ashwood’s army of Crafters and Loj-infected civilians, and there was only so much magic that their own Crafters could generate. Apparently, spinning new spells into charms took more time than she had originally thought.
What Tavia needed now was a hiding place.
She turned another corner and the sound of music echoed over.
In the curve of the street, caught between an alley and a tree that reached for the night sky, was just the thing she needed.
The Last Hope.
When she’d scouted the bar as a place to lie low in case anything went wrong, she hadn’t actually expected—or wanted—to use it. Rishiya didn’t have much in terms of a nightlife, especially to someone who’d grown up on the streets of Creije, and this place was famous for boring booze and big bouncers.
It also, apparently, didn’t take kindly to buskers. Which made it pretty perfect for wanting to escape Nolan and his band of bastards.
Tavia ran past the small queue and straight to the man guarding the door, who she’d already slipped a whole load of coin earlier that day. She flashed him her best smile and with a quick nod, he moved to push her through, something Karam—who took her job as a guard pretty seriously—would have frowned upon.
With one last cursory look to check she wasn’t being followed, Tavia headed quickly inside.
She slowly edged past the flurry of people discussing politics with their liquor glasses poised by their lips, and found a quiet booth in the corner where she could keep her eyes on the doors in case Nolan and his friends made an appearance.
“Can I get you something?” a waiter asked, offering Tavia a menu.
She shook her head.
“We have the best drinks in town,” he said. “Anything you want.”
Cloverye, Tavia thought. Just leave the bottle.
But “I’m fine” was what she actually said. “Really. Tek.”
The waiter nodded and walked away, though he left the menu, and if Tavia hadn’t been waiting out a horde of buskers, she would have called him back for that bottle of Cloverye and a straw.
As she looked around at the bar, she thought about how the Last Hope really was aptly named, because Tavia couldn’t imagine anyone who enjoyed fun making it a frequent choice. The music was low and far too smooth, forgetting to toe that gentle line between being quiet enough for people to order drinks but upbeat enough to let any worries fade away. It didn’t have the same violent charm as the Crook.
“Fancy meeting you here.”
Tavia closed her eyes in a sigh.
“Small world,” she said, turning on the stool. “One might say it was suffocating.”
Nolan did not look impressed, and Tavia suspected that it wasn’t just because of his new black eye, or the blood on his mouth, or the various scrapes her duplicate selves had been good enough to give him.
Behind him, ten of his busker friends glared in perfect unison.
At the very least, she was happy that the other Tavias had managed to take down two of his crew, but eleven against one was still crappy odds, and she kicked herself for spending so long watching the front entrance to the Last Hope and turning her attention from the back.
Something Wesley would have never let happen.
Except, try as hard as she could, Tavia wasn’t Wesley. She was fast, but not fast enough. She could scout an escape and throw magic at her enemies, but she couldn’t have eyes in the back of her head like he always seemed to.
She was good, but still not good enough.
“Just tell me that you weren’t able to follow me,” Tavia said. “I might be having some bad luck, but I swear you weren’t on my tail. Save me some pride here.”
“There’s a tracking charm in the backpack,” Nolan said. “Might have been good for you to check your stolen merchandise.”
Tavia cursed, loud enough for him to raise an eyebrow. She’d have to remember to take that out after she kicked his ass. Tavia couldn’t risk Nolan following her back to the forest.
“You have something of mine,” Nolan said.
“And you have something of mine.” Tavia gestured to his black eye. “Though you can keep that. How about I keep the backpack too and we’ll call it even?”
“You’re hilarious,” Nolan deadpanned.
“Thanks,” she said. “Most people don’t appreciate how hard humor can be in the face of death.”
“At least you know that you’re going to die.” Nolan took a menacing step toward her. “I hope you’re prepared for how slow I’m going to make it. Maybe I’ll even bring your head to my underboss. I’m sure Casim would appreciate one of Wesley’s little goons as a trophy.”
“Wow.” Tavia grimaced. “That’s really graphic. I think you offended my friend’s delicate sensibilities.”
She gestured with a nod behind him and when Nolan finally turned, he came face-to-face with Karam: Creije’s most deadly fighter and the woman who was currently teaching Tavia how to kill someone in a dozen different ways.
Karam stepped forward, her skillfully embroidered clothes cascading down to her ankles in a way that was almost delicate, and so very much the opposite of Karam. Even from where Tavia stood, she could smell the peppermint salve on her friend’s sliced knuckles, something the fighters in Creije loved to use to soothe their injuries and that Karam wore every day, just in case.
“I thought we agreed that you were going to stop being stupid,” Karam said, Wrenyi accent thick on her tongue.
“I didn’t agree to anything,” Tavia said. “Did you follow me here?”
Karam crossed her arms over her chest. “Are you complaining about me saving you?”
“I don’t need saving.” Tavia leaned back in the booth. “I’m a busker, not a damsel.”
Nolan looked between them with a disbelieving scoff. “Are you two finished?” he asked. “Because we were about to kill her.”
For the first time, Karam looked at him, as if she had only just realized—or cared—that he was there.
“We have not been introduced,” she said.
“No,” Nolan said. “We haven’t.”
Karam held out a hand. “Hello,” she said.
And then she used that hand to grab ahold of Nolan’s shoulder and pull him toward her.
Without warning, Karam cracked her head against his.
The buskers broke into a frenzy as Nolan stumbled back, clutching his bloody nose. Quickly, Karam landed a kick to one of the others.
Tavia jumped up from the booth just as Nolan regained his footing, smashing a glass from a nearby table over his head. She shifted the backpack on her shoulder and landed a kick to another busker’s knee.
He went down with a yelp.
“This is why I had to follow you,” Karam said.
She kicked a busker in the chest and as he bent over to catch his breath, she rolled across his back and punched another clean in the face.
“You are so reckless.”
Tavia sighed at the lecture, which was becoming Karam’s specialty these days.
“If you were so worried about my safety, then you could have helped me take Nolan down back in the streets before his buddies showed up,” Tavia said.
She swung her fist into the air, catching the cheek of a nearby busker, just the way Karam had taught her.
Karam took out her knife and threw it into the shoulder of another. “I thought you did not need saving,” she said.
Tavia rolled her eyes and kneed one of Nolan’s friends in the groin.
“Forget making it slow!” Nolan yelled, pulling out a knife. “I’m going to gut you where you stand.”
Tavia shook her head. “He really does like being graphic,” she said to Karam.
She reached into her pocket for a pair of mirrored glasses and slipped them onto her nose, like she had seen Wesley do a dozen times.
“Here,” she said to Karam. “Put these on.”
Karam wrinkled her face and looked at Tavia like she was starting to lose her mind, but when she saw Tavia’s hands go to her pocket for a second time, it seemed Karam knew better than to argue.
“What in the Many Gods are those for?” Nolan asked, wiping the blood from his nose.
Tavia clutched the charm in her hand, its jagged edge spiking into her palm like tiny needles.
“A way to show that if there’s one thing I have,” she said, “it’s style.”
She threw the charm down onto the floor and it exploded into a blinding light. Nolan and the others clutched at their eyes, screaming loud enough to drown out the bar’s music altogether.
“Come on!” Tavia yelled. “We need to go!”
She pulled Karam toward the door, where the customers were now blindly running and screaming as their vision temporarily disappeared.
They spilled back out onto the streets of Rishiya and Karam ripped the glasses from her face.
“Have you considered trying not to get yourself killed every now and again?” she asked as they darted through the city.
“Not really,” Tavia said, struggling to keep up with her pace. “I think I’d find it boring.”
She didn’t need to look at Karam to know that she was rolling her eyes, but Tavia felt invigorated. She had the magic she’d come for, so all in all the trip to the city had been a roaring success. And with the warm breeze on her neck and fire of victory in her belly, Tavia felt like maybe all hope wasn’t quite lost.
Karam could call her reckless and the Crafters in the camp could call her a danger, but Tavia had a job to do. She had buskers to lead, and she was going to win this war and save Wesley, whether people approved of her methods or not.
Copyright © 2021 by Alexandra Christo