That was what the woman in Judgment Square had called Merik. She’d meant it as a title. She’d meant it as a prayer.
Bald, scarred, and hulking, the saint of all things broken bore only the name of his true nature. His one calling. He brought justice to the wronged and punishment to the wicked, and while Lady Baile was as beautiful as life itself, the Fury was more grotesque than even the Hagfishes.
The crimson and black pigments of his body had faded, never to be refreshed, as had the gray cavernous backdrop behind him—and the words below the Fury’s clawed feet:
Why do you hold a razor in one hand?
So men remember that I am sharp as any edge.
And why do you hold broken glass in the other?
So men remember that I am always watching.
“And this,” Merik murmured to himself, “is who that woman mistook me for.” This was the monster she had seen when she’d looked upon him.
He turned to the Fury’s empty urn. Always empty, for no one wished to accidentally attract his eye, lest they too be judged.
Outside the temple, the storm finally broke. Rain clattered down, loud enough for Merik to hear. Yet when he glanced back toward the columns, expecting to find people rushing in for shelter, he found only a single figure loping inside. She dripped water to the flagstones with each of her long steps.
Cam. Merik’s only ally.
“Dried lamb?” she called once she was close enough. Her voice echoed off the granite flagstones. Like Merik, she wore a hooded tan coat atop her beige shirt and black trousers—all of it homespun, all of it filthy. “The meat’s not too wet.”
Merik forced himself to summon a glare. To scold: “What have I said about stealing?”
“Does that mean,” she began, her black eyes glittering with lamp-lit mischief, “that you don’t want it? I can always save it for myself, you know.”
Merik wrested it from her grip. Hunger, he had learned, beat morality every time.
“S’what I thought.” A gloating grin split her face, stretching the white patches on her brown cheek. “Even dead men gotta eat.”
Cam’s whole body was speckled with those swaths of white skin. Down the right side of her neck they spanned, stretching onto her left forearm, her right hand. Obvious, if one was looking; invisible if one wasn’t.
Merik had certainly never looked before. He’d never been able to recall her name—she’d simply been the new recruit. Then again, he hadn’t known she was a girl either. She’d looked the part of a ship’s boy on the Jana, and she’d played it well enough too.
Not once had Merik commented on Cam’s sex though. And since she seemed determined to keep her secret, he had continued to address her as “boy.” After all, what did it really matter in the end? She was the one who had stayed behind while the rest of the crew went to the village of Noden’s Gift.
My gut told me you weren’t dead, she’d explained to Merik, so I searched and searched and searched until I found you.
“Are the streets safe, boy?” he asked through a mouthful of tough meat. The lamb had been smoked too long.
“Hye,” Cam mumbled through her own full jowls. “Though no thanks to you, sir. The Royal Forces are all riled up. Which”—she tore off another bite with vicious emphasis—“is why you should’ve let me come along.”
Merik huffed a sigh. He and Cam had exchanged this same argument at least once a day since the explosion. Each time Merik had slunk into a small village to find supplies or gone hunting along the riverbanks for supper, Cam had begged to join. Each time, Merik had refused.
“If you’d been there,” Merik countered, “then the Royal Forces would be hunting you now too.”
“Not a chance, sir.” Cam swatted the air with her lamb strip. “If I’d been with you, I’d have kept watch, see? Then that pickpocket wouldn’t have nabbed this…” She fished a flimsy coin purse from her coat and dangled it before Merik’s nose. “Did you even notice someone had picked your pocket, sir?”
Merik swore under his breath. Then he snatched it from her. “I had not noticed, and how did you get it back?”
“Same way I get everything.” She wiggled her fingers at him. The glistening, jagged scar on the edge of her left hand shone.
As Cam relayed how she’d enjoyed Merik’s adventure from a nearby rooftop, he settled in to the familiar rhythm of her storytelling. Unfiltered, uncultured, unabashed—that was how Cam spoke. Dragging out words for effect or lowering her voice to a tense, terrifying whisper.
For the past two weeks, the girl had talked endlessly. And for the past two weeks, Merik had listened. In fact, more often than not, Merik had found himself clinging to those moments when he could lose himself in Cam’s voice. When he could ride the crests and waves of her story and forget, for just a few breaths, that his life had been swept away by hell-waters.
“The streets are crawling with soldiers now, sir. But,” Cam finished, flashing one of her easy smiles, “with the rain going like this, I can get us into Old Town unseen. You gotta finish eating first, though.”
“Hye, hye,” he muttered, and though he would have preferred to savor the feel of food down his gullet—Noden’s breath, it had been so long—Merik choked down the final smoky mouthful of lamb. Then he pushed to his feet and offered a gruff, “Lead the way, boy. Lead the way.”
* * *
Vivia Nihar stood before the Battle Room’s massive doors, the grain in the pale, unpainted oak blurring like the clouds that gathered outside. Voices hummed through, serious and low.
No regrets, she thought, tugging at her navy frock coat’s sleeves. Just keep moving. She smoothed her blouse underneath. It was the same set of phrases she thought each morning upon waking. The same phrases she had to recite to get through the day, through the difficult decisions. Through the hole that lived forever just behind her breastbone.
No regrets, keep moving … Where is the footman? The princess of Nubrevna was not meant to open her own blighted door. Especially not when all thirteen vizers of the High Council waited on the other side, judging her every move.
All day long, she was hounded by palace staff or city officials or sycophantic nobility. Yet now, when she actually needed someone to help her, no one was near.
With a frown twitching on her lips, Vivia squinted at a patch of light at the end of the long, dark hall. Two silhouettes fought to close the enormous doors—a sign that the clouds outside would soon thicken to a storm.