The Puppeteer. Just as she’d done in Lejna to the Marstoki Adders and sailors, the Puppeteer must have cleaved these men from afar. And she must now be controlling them too.
At that realization, Threads began winking out. One by one, the Cleaved still locked in iron traps were dying. As if the Puppeteer had decided their time was up and snipped apart their Severed Threads.
Yet the man below still lived. He continued to prowl, leaving Iseult with only one option: she would have to cut herself down and try to kill the Cleaved before he killed her.
Iseult never got to make that move, before the hunter scuffled over a second trap. A net ripped from the soil, slinging him upward. Ropes squeaked. He struggled and fought and howled, mere feet from Iseult until he to was abruptly silenced, his Threads vanishing in a hiss of shriveling black.
The Puppeteer had killed him, leaving Iseult all alone on a Nomatsi road.
Iseult couldn’t help it: she laughed. She had finally claimed the pause she so desperately needed. She had finally evaded her hunters, and this was where it landed her.
Iseult’s laughter quickly dissolved. Trickled away on a swoop of cold.
For if Esme had sent these Cleaved to hunt her, Iseult could only assume she would do so again.
Worry about that later, she told herself. For now, she had no opponents, and her biggest worry was cutting herself down without breaking any bones in the process.
“Oh, goat tits,” she murmured, invoking one of Safi’s favorite oaths and grabbing at her Threadstone—no longer flashing—for the burst of strength she liked to pretend it gave her.
Then without another word or thought, and with only Threadwitch focus to guide her, Iseult set to sawing herself free.
As Merik dipped and wove down Hawk’s Way, a crowded street that bisected Lovats from one end to the other and hugged the River Timetz, he prayed the storm rolling in would hold off just a few more hours. Long enough for him to get to proper shelter. Maybe long enough for him to find a proper meal too.
He needed his strength back before he ventured to Pin’s Keep.
Each breath Merik swallowed was spiced with rain about to break. Thunder rumbled beneath the wind-drums’ song across Lovats. Soldiers needed in Judgment Square.
Lucky for Merik, he was a full mile from Judgment Square now, lost in the mayhem of Hawk’s Way, with its crisscrossing bridges and zigzagging side streets. The buildings leaned like sailors after a night drinking, and at each intersection, wreaths of last autumn’s oak leaves hung from corner to corner.
The amber and yellow shades never failed to catch Merik’s eyes when he passed. So much of the Nihar lands had never seen an autumn harvest—or a spring rebirth—in the years that Merik had lived there. So much of the soil still festered with Dalmotti poison.
But the poison had never reached Lovats far to the northeast, so braiding oak leaves with strands of sage and mint, with sunbursts of fire and green, was still quite possible here. These wreaths were for the royal funeral in three days. For Merik’s funeral.
What a twisted sense of humor Noden had.
On Merik hurried, the call for soldiers still hammering strong, even as he hopped the worn granite steps into an ancient temple off Hawk’s Way. This temple was as old as Lovats itself, and time had smoothed away the six columns waiting at the shadowy entrance.
The Hagfishes. Noden’s messengers, tasked with carrying the dead beyond the farthest shelf, deep down to the god’s court at the bottom of the sea. Now all that remained of the sculptures were iron rings at waist level and the faintest outlines of faces above.
Merik followed a line of light inside, aiming for the farthest wall of the temple. The air cooled with each step; the wind-drums’ call softened. Gradually, all sunlight faded, replaced by two halfhearted lamps hanging above a stone Noden on his throne at the temple’s heart.
The space was mostly empty at this time of day. Only two old ladies waited within, and they were currently headed out.
“I hope there’s bread at the funeral,” said one of the women. Her reedy voice bounced off the granite god. “The Lindays handed out bread at the queen’s funeral—do you remember that?”
“Don’t get too excited,” her companion muttered back. “I heard there might not be a funeral.”
This hooked Merik’s attention. He slunk behind the throne and listened. “My nephew Rayet is a page at the palace,” the second woman continued, “and he told me that the princess didn’t react at all when she heard the news of the prince’s murder.”
Of course she didn’t. Merik’s arms folded over his chest, fingers digging into his tender biceps.
“Did your nephew know who killed the prince? That butcher at the end of Hawk’s Way told me it was the Marstoks, but then my neighbor said it was the Cartorrans…” Her voice faded into muffled nothing, and Merik didn’t try to follow.
He’d heard enough. More than enough. Of course Vivia would cancel the funeral. He could practically hear her drawling voice: Why waste food on the people when the troops could use it instead?
She cared only for power. For claiming the crown that the High Council had, thank Noden, still not given her. But if the king’s illness worsened—if he passed on as everyone believed Merik had—then there would be no keeping Vivia from the throne.
Abandoning the statue of the god, Merik moved to the two frescoes on the back wall.
On the right stood Lady Baile, patron saint of change, seasons, and crossroads. Noden’s Right Hand, they called her, and the lamp’s fire shimmered across golden wheat in her left hand, a silver trout in her right. Her skin was painted like a night sky, black with pinpricks of white, while the fox-shaped mask across her face shone blue. She stood upon a field of green, all colors on the fresco recently refreshed, as were the golden words beneath her:
Though we cannot always see
the blessing in the loss.
Strength is the gift of our Lady Baile
and she will never abandon us.
Merik’s gaze flicked to a copper urn resting before her, overflowing with wood and silver coins. Offerings for her kindness. A petition for her to whisper in Noden’s ear, Help them.
In vibrant heaps at the urn’s base lay wreaths of last year’s leaves, of sage and mint and rosemary—gifts to honor the dead. Merik wondered if any had been placed for Kullen.
Then his chest clenched. He twisted away, fixing his gaze on the second fresco. On Noden’s Left Hand. The patron saint of justice, of vengeance, of rage.