Silent as a shadow, swift as river, sure as a blade.
The words echoed through Jacob’s head. They brought back memories of his time with the bandits. Of Zeke’s cruel ways, his taunts, always goading Jake to be faster, stronger, better. Jake could still taste the dirt he had always found himself crumpled on, still feel the burn of Zeke’s blade on his skin…
They were not happy memories.
Jake chased the ghosts of his past away with a small shake of his head, banishing them to the back of his mind. Forgetting about things, storing up emotions for a time when he could examine them with a detached sort of feeling, keeping his actions purely professional—these were the things Jake was good at. The past five years had taken nearly everything from Jake, but they had left him with certain skills, and he was very good at what he did.
Jake hated himself for what he did best. Despised the piece of him Zeke had most prized.
Where is she? Jake thought. Word on the street in Regnum had been that the princess was off to be married to the crown prince of Flumen. She and two others, both about the girl’s own age, were rumored to be traversing the Sylvian Woods. The two guards, a boy and a girl, were supposed to be the best fighters in the all of Regnum, but from the gossip Jake had picked up, it sounded like both were inexperienced.
Inexperienced was good. It made them easy targets. Of course, Jake would only be able to rob them blind once he’d found them, which was proving to be easier said than done. He’d been up and down this stretch of woods a dozen times, combing through the area they were in. They had to be in it.
So where are they?
“Don’t tell me what to do!” The voice was high and harsh. The arrogance in the speaker’s tone meant it could only belong to one person. And, sure enough, “I am royalty!”
Jake slunk through the woods, lithe as a cat. The closer he got to the source of the noise, the more he could hear. By the time he peeked out from behind a tree, he could make out every word they said, the crackle of their fire, the snuffling of their horses.
“When will it get through that thick head of yours, Avaysia? It doesn’t matter that you’re a princess out here. It only makes you an easier target. Everyone knows that we’re out here and if you don’t shut up—”
Jake, flat on his stomach in the underbrush, inched aside a bottom branch of a shrub. He peeked into the camp just as the girl speaking was silenced by a look from one of her companions.
“Emma,” he said, the warning clear in his voice.
Jake slid forwards a little farther, trying to see in the dim light. The glow from the campfire was enough to show three shadowy figures. Two were seated around the flames. The third, the boy who had just spoken, stood as he cut off the girl who was not the princess. Emma.
“You know it’s true!” Emma protested.
The boy turned. Jake could see something poking up over his shoulder. It looked like a bundle of sticks and feathers—the shafts and fletchings of arrows. This, then, must be the archer. The girl, Emma, must be the swordsman.
Swordswoman, Jake corrected himself.
She had been the one to stir up some sort of commotion at the tournament. The village Jake had snuck into had been all in a dither about something she’d done, but then the royal guards came through on their patrols and Jake had had to scram before the gossipers had unwittingly revealed what it was. That was the problem with eavesdropping and slinking around corners all the time. You only ever got half the story, and even then, you never knew how much of it was fact.
The archer stood facing Emma. She sat with her spine straight, her chin lifted. Jacob couldn’t see their faces, but he could tell they were having some kind of stare-down. It was the princess who broke the silence.
“Are you just going to let her speak to me like that?”
Jake winced at the pitch and volume of her voice. The forest was usually a quiet place, but this girl clearly didn’t know the first thing about wilderness survival.
Rule number one, Jake thought. Never attract attention to yourself. You never know who might be listening.
Emma and the archer seemed to be thinking along the same lines.
“Shh!” they said in unison as Avaysia opened her mouth again.
“Well?” she persisted, her voice marginally quieter. “Are you?”
“Your Majesty,” the boy started.
“Oh, give it a rest, Wren,” Emma cut across him. “All this ‘Your Majesty’ rubbish gives me a headache.”
“Well, excuse you,” the princess said. Her outline was ramrod straight, arms and legs folded so tightly together that she was nothing more than an indistinct silhouette.
“Look, princess,” Emma said, cramming as much contempt into the word as she could. “Word moves fast. People know we’re somewhere along this trail. You’re broadcasting our general location to any criminal who cares. It’s like waving a flag and shouting, ‘Come and get me!’”
“Isn’t that what you’re here for? To protect me against people like that?”
“You are perfectly safe with us, princess,” Wren said. Unlike Emma, he spoke the final word with a certain tenderness.
Though Jake couldn’t see her face, he could almost hear Emma’s eye roll. His own eyes were going in a circle, too.
Perfectly safe? he thought. If they knew who was listening…of course, if they knew I was here, I wouldn’t be much of a threat, would I?
“You remember the wolves, Avaysia? Do you really want to attract more attention like that? A robber—or worse, a whole group of bandits—would be far worse. We might keep you intact, but you can kiss that pretty tent and all your baubles and pretty clothes goodbye. It’d be like Christmas for them.”
Under the pop of a log on the fire breaking in two, Jake caught an intake of breath. He guessed that the princess had been about to argue, but then Wren cut in. He sounded like an impatient parent dealing with yet another squabble between children.
Both girls fell silent. Wren prowled around their little camp. He seemed…nervous. Like he had some idea that he and the girls were not alone that night.
No. That’s ridiculous. No one could know I’m here. I made no noise, gave no hint, not even the slightest indication. All the same, Jake shrank into the shadows a little more. You’re just being paranoid, he told himself.
“Bedtime,” Wren said, shattering the silence. “Emma, I’ll take first watch.”
Just before he doused the fire with a pail of water, Jake caught a glimpse of the figures around it rising to their feet. For a moment, four outlines gathered around the light of the fire. Then there was nothing but the hissing of embers turning water to steam and darkness.
Four? Jake wondered. No one said anything about a third guard.
Jake waited until the murmur of voices died away. He could hear at least two people shifting fabric. Presumably, the three girls—and that last figure had definitely looked feminine—getting into their tents. There was the rustling of leaves, as though the boy, Wren, had scaled a tree to keep watch.
Jake hunkered down to wait. The archer hadn’t seemed like one would might dose off while on duty. The swordswoman, on the other hand, had sounded tired. She might be a little less watchful than one might expect from a royal guard. Of course, she was clearly not any kind of properly trained royal guard. Not with the way she had spoken to Avaysia.
A breeze stirred the night air. A cloud drifted across the sky, revealing the moon. It’s light was enough to make out vague shapes nearby. The hours ticked by, dragging on until, at last, Jake heard the snapping of branches and a muttered curse or two.
The changing of the guards, he thought.
Without making a sound, Jake peered into the clearing again. The archer was tromping across the clearing to a tent. Squinting, Jake could make out the shape of another, larger tent beyond the first. Wren ducked into the smaller, then appeared again a moment later.
After another minute, Emma emerged. Her sword was belted to her waist and she was messing with her hair, scraping it back from her face. She and Wren exchanged a few whispered words, then Emma took to the tree and Wren collapsed into a hammock strung up near the horses.
Jacob waited what felt like forever, until he was sure both Wren and Emma had drifted off. Then, moving with the stealth of the long-practiced,he crept out of his hiding place. Step by step, he began to make his way to the princess’s tent.
He slunk through the camp, careful not to disturb the horses. He was just lifting the flap when he heard the snap. His head whipped around, and Jacob watched Emma spring from the tree.
She flipped through the air and landed neatly on her feet. Her hand flew, not to her sword, but to her head, where a stick twisted in her hair kept it from falling in her face. She gripped the wood and yanked it free. Black locks cascaded past her shoulders. She pointed the stick at Jacob and brandished it threateningly.
What was it the woman at the well had said to her friend?
“Yes! That’s what I heard, too. Seemed quite normal until she up and announced it to the whole world. Her and that stick gave the king quite a turn.”
And then he had been chased off by the arrival of guards. But now Jake knew what she had been talking about. Emma wasn’t a normal girl, or even a normal warrior girl. She was a witch, and her most dangerous weapon, her magic wand, was pointed straight at Jacob.
“Freeze!” she shouted, and Jake froze. Whether it was from terror or a magic spell, he couldn’t have said.
In a flash, the archer was beside her. He already held his bow with an arrow notched and ready to fly. Jacob, realizing that he could, in fact, still move, glanced around. His eyes darted everywhere, searching for an escape route. If he could just make it back to the woods…
As if reading his thoughts, Emma fixed her gaze upon him. “Don’t even think about it,” she said. Jake froze again. “What do you think we should do, Wren?” she asked the archer.
“You know how we take care of thieves, Emma,” Wren replied.
Jacob was rooted to the spot. There was always an out—there had to be, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out an escape. All that penetrated the fog of his brain was the sound of the princess snoring, oblivious to the world.
“What’s happening?” a sleepy voice said.
“Go back to sleep, Bella,” the witch replied.
Jacob, hardly daring to take his eyes from Emma and Wren, glanced at the smaller tent. A small, pale face poked out of it. She must have be the forth figure from the fire circle. Then the girl disappeared back inside.
“Ready, Emma?” the archer asked, recapturing Jake’s attention.
“When you are,” Emma replied.
In unison, the two raised their weapons and leveled them with Jacob’s head. Then they smiled.