The Nephilim set them up with beds for the night. One of the younger faeries helped them to build a fire pit of green flames that didn’t so much as spark outside its border. Kenneth left the clearing, call-stone in hand with a vague excuse about checking in at the Palace. Finn settled down with Mercutio’s ring, trying to make sense of his ramblings. Matt was rolling out his sleeping mat just outside the circle of firelight.
Cassie went up to him. “How are you doing?”
He leaned back on his heels and looked up at her. “Fine.” His eyes shimmered in the twinkling faerie lights, a soft kind of green. “Why do you ask?”
She sat down next to him, avoiding eye contact. “Just a general sort of question,” she said. “Making sure you’re not having second thoughts about this whole thing.”
“The Rite or being here in general?”
“Either,” Cassie said. “Both. What you were saying about your dad earlier…”
Matt repositioned himself onto his bedroll, one leg pulled up in front of him. “You don’t need to worry about me and my father,” he said. “If I have any regrets about what I left behind, they aren’t about him. He was a madman long before he decided to look for the Ultimate Power.”
“I’ve heard a lot of terrible things about your father, and I mean a lot, but I’ve never heard anyone call him crazy.”
“‘All things are justifiable by intent,’” Matt quoted. “The horrible things he’s done, the pain he’s caused to our realm…people don’t see it as bloodlust because he claims it’s for the greater good. And he really does want the best for the people; it’s all he’s ever wanted. Even now, even as Dacruum are dying, he truly believes he’s doing the right thing.”
Cassie whistled softly. “That’s some kind of denial. Although I guess it makes sense. How else could he go after the Ultimate Power knowing what it’ll do?”
“Honestly, I don’t think my father believes that the power will destroy the universe,” Matt said. “I’m not even sure he thinks it could. It is an old legend after all. Over the years it’s gone through a lot of changes. If what the Nephilim said is true then the reason the Ultimate Power will destroy the universe is because the power of demon blood, or whatever you’d call it, can’t mix with ours. To him it must be the utmost test of strength: to see if he can not only attain the power, but control it enough to keep its radiation from destroying everything. That would prove the perfection of the Blood King once and for all.”
All Cassie could think to say was, “You’re right, that is crazy.” She fiddled with her necklace. Maybe her family had made some monumental mistakes, but at least their greater good hurt only themselves. “Growing up like that must have been tough,” Cassie tried.
“Feeling sorry for me, Your Majesty?” Matt said. He smiled. “If my father had been remotely involved in my upbringing, neither of us would be here. I’m almost grateful for his neglect. Actually, I am grateful. I grew up away from court, learned perspective and humility. By the time my father brought me back, I could see him for what he really was.” Cassie must have been making a face because he said, “It wasn’t as dramatic as I make it seem, don’t worry. It’s just…everyone sees him as a great emperor because of what he did. Even though I know he meant well and perhaps there were benefits, I seem to be the only one who thinks that it’s possible for the cost to outweigh those benefits.”
“Are you still talking about the Ultimate Power?” Cassie said.
“Not really,” Mat admitted. He sighed. “I’m thinking about my grandfather.”
“What about him?”
“Well, remember what I said about being at his deathbed?” Matt said.
Cassie nodded. “You said that’s when he told you about Julian and the prophecy.”
“It was. But he said a lot of other things too. Things about the Empire and our family’s legacy. It just makes me wonder how things could have been different.”
“When did your grandfather die?”
“About…” Matt thought, “…wow. Ten years now. I can’t believe it’s been that long. You know, it was actually a coincidence that I was there at all when he died. See, I lived with Magistrate Llewellyn on Gamma Daeori, so I hadn’t seen him in years. Then when the Magistrate went back to Alpha for a summit, he let me tag along to visit my family. My mother was away, she’s always away, and I didn’t know it at the time, but my father was busy stirring up revolution. So I spent most of that time at Grandfather’s bedside.”
“What do you mean revolution?”
“My father was second-born to the family. As a prince it’s said that he was devoted and loyal. But when Grandfather started getting sick, I think he realized for the first time that there would be a world without him. And I know he hated his brother, though for the life of me I can’t see why. Uncle Julian, Julian III,” he corrected when Cassie raised her eyebrows, “he was everything we might have wanted in an Emperor. Grandfather knew that. But he also knew that once my father got it into his head that he was the rightful ruler, nothing would get in his way. You know, that’s actually how he got the nickname ‘Blood King.’ The revolution he started lasted three years. Millions of people died, Alpha Daeori was ravaged, the capital was all but torn down and the damn place is carved into a crater.”
Matt shook his head. “That all happened after Grandfather died though. And thankfully, I was too young to take part in any of it. I just remember Grandfather saying that a man like my father could never protect the legacy of our family. Maybe he was too proud to carry on any tradition that wasn’t his own. Or maybe…maybe I don’t know. But Grandfather said that if the worst happened, it would fall to me to guard the heart of the Empire. To resurrect the Ardals as they were meant to be. That’s why he told me the prophecy. He must have known what my father would do. What I would have to do to stop him.”
Cassie remembered the words that Matt had repeated to her before. That when the Emperor tried to lead the worlds to ruin his son would redeem him through betrayal. “You know, there’s a saying on Earth. Well, a quote from a play. It says that ‘The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.’ Sometimes I think that the choices our parents made, even before we were born, determine more about who we are than we do. Not even just the bits of our personality we pick up from them as children, but the responsibilities we have and the challenges we face. I know that if my mother hadn’t deserted her family, I wouldn’t be queen now. I would have grown up a Craftling, and I would be ready. Ready to be a leader, to be Mercutio’s heir and make these decisions. Maybe your grandfather believed in that too.”
Matt repositioned himself, crossing his legs in front of him. He twisted his hands in his lap. “I want to say that you’re wrong. I want to believe that my life is my own. But here I am, with the one person I thought I would hate more than anyone and…” He sighed. “My father says I’m soft-hearted. Maybe I am. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched his disregard for life so long that I believe death has to mean something. That’s how I can see the cost of what he’s done and why I feel the need to stop him.”
“That’s what you think soft-hearted is?” Cassie said. “That’s just being a decent human being. Caring about whether your people live or die is the first responsibility of a ruler. Isn’t it?”
“I would say so, but not everyone would agree,” Matt said. “The Dacruum believe that the courage to make sacrifices for the greater good is what distinguishes an emperor. And Father certainly has that down.”
Cassie snorted. “Your people and mine have very different ideas of what sacrifice is.”
Matt looked a little abashed. “What you said earlier about giving up your life. You’re really ready to do that, aren’t you?”
“Ready?” Cassie said. “I’ll never be ready. Not really. But…well…after everything that’s happened I can’t not entertain the possibility. If my life is the only thing between us and the end of the world…how could I say no?”
Matt lifted his hand. He moved hesitantly; Cassie thought he meant to touch her on the shoulder or the hand, but a sudden noise spooked him. They both stood up.
Kenneth had returned to the clearing. He and a few faeries were talking loudly, calling the Nephilim over with clear urgency. Finn stood up on the other side of the fire as well. “What’s going on?” she said. The three of them hurried across the clearing.
Kenneth turned to them without preamble. “Soldiers,” he said. “Here.”
“Soldiers?” Cassie repeated.
“Dacruum soldiers,” Kenneth said. His neck was flushing red. “Dacruum soldiers in the conduit.”
“Calm down,” Finn told him. “What are they doing here?”
“Looking for you,” Kenneth whirled on Matt. “The Nephilim are trying to divert them but somehow they’re coming straight for us. Did you lead them here?”
“Of course not,” Matt said. “Remember, they’re here to kill me. It must be Dogs; they’re trained to detect a scent under any kind of magic. Even the Nephilim are no match for them.”
“So what are we supposed to do?” Cassie said.
“We need to leave immediately,” Kenneth said. “As soon as they find this court, they’ll burn the forest to the ground trying to get in. We need to lead the trail away from here and lose them somewhere.”
“And how do you propose we do that?” Matt said. He glanced over at the Nephilim, already giving orders to their people. “They’re here. I say we confront them.”
“You want us to fight them here?” Kenneth said.
“Of course not,” Matt said. “I want to reason with them.”
“Cause that’s better,” Kenneth snorted. “You can’t reason with Dogs.”
“Maybe you can’t,” Matt said. “But I know these men. Or I did once. They might listen to me. My father’s actions are becoming more and more public, they must see what’s happening. If I can convince them that I’m not a traitor, maybe they’ll even help us.”
“Even if you could convince them,” Finn said, “they won’t come to our side. Not when you’re working with us. We killed five Dogs at Vertiis. Even if they don’t know it was us specifically, they’ll be blaming the Craftlings.”
“Then I’ll go alone,” Matt said. “You three can stay here, where it’s safe.”
“Absolutely not,” Kenneth said. “You think I’m going to let you go out there and tell them whatever you want?”
“What do you think I’m going to say?”
Before Kenneth could answer, Cassie said, “Whatever you say to them, these men aren’t your friends anymore. We can’t let you go out there alone. They might kill you before you even get a chance to explain. And if you can’t convince them we have to do something to get them off our tail.”
“This is not the place to start a fight,” Kenneth insisted.
“Not everything has to come to firebombs,” Finn said. “If we fight smart, it’s barely a fight at all. Did you see how many there are?”
“I didn’t see them,” Kenneth said. “But the fey woman said she saw three.”
“Well at least we outnumber them,” Finn said. “If we run away, all we do is prolong the inevitable. If we have to confront them eventually, I say we get it out of the way now.”
Cassie and Matt nodded their agreement. Outnumbered, Kenneth threw up his hands. “Fine. Then we’d better hurry.”
Cassie took off her crown and stuffed it back into her bag. She didn’t want to cause any more trouble than necessary. With a thought she snapped her wand into a staff. Hopefully her brief training with Farand would be enough to keep her safe. Finn opted for the saber she’d brought along, tying its plain sheath to her belt loop. Kenneth strung his bow as usual and Matt strapped what looked like a longsword to his back.
The same young woman from before let them back out through the protective magic. No longer lithe and mysterious, she seemed to be shaking. “They’re almost here,” she said. “The Nephilim say to be careful. They don’t want to take this into their own hands.”
“How comforting,” Finn muttered.
“I’ll let you back in when it’s safe,” the faerie said. She gave them a quick bow and then disappeared.
Kenneth notched an arrow to the string. “Are we sure this is a good idea?”
“Not at all,” Cassie said.
“Look, I know these guys,” Matt said. “Dogs don’t like to get their hands dirty. They won’t start a fight unless absolutely necessary. If we can just get them to listen I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“How much are you planning on telling them?” Kenneth said.
“Only what my father’s up to,” Matt said. “He’s been involving the Triumvirs in this since the start. The Dogs will have to have noticed their leader acting strange. I’m not sure how involved Sigmund is, but I hear that Creed and his Riders have been questioning their orders recently. Any dissention in the court we can use against my father.”
“The more I hear about the Dacruum army, the more I want to stay the hell away from that court of yours,” Finn said. “With the Triumvirs and their special squadrons holed up with the Emperor you’re basically a military state.”
“We do what we have to to survive,” Matt said. “The Craftlings haven’t exactly been merciful enemies.”
“You’ve got that right,” said a voice to their left.
“You!” Finn shouted. She drew her saber.
The same man who had faced them in Gran’s front yard walked toward them out of the trees. Cassie would have recognized his cruel smile anywhere. He wore fatigues this time, a sword casually hung at his hip. At the crown of his head a pair of curved horns stuck out of his hair. Cassie didn’t recognize his other two companions as they quietly flanked her and her friends.
“And you,” the horned man said. “What in the world are you doing here?”
Matt stepped forward. “She’s with me. They all are.”
“Not exactly a strong position, My Prince,” said the man to the left. “I never thought I’d see the day when you ally with Craftlings.”
“I do what is necessary for the realm, you know that.” He looked at each of them in turn. “Bryant,” the man on the left, “Azazel,” the horned man, “Jackson,” the man on the right, “you know that I would never betray the Empire.”
“And yet here you stand among our enemies,” Bryant said.
“Circumstances have forced my hand,” Matt said. “You know what my father is capable of, how little he cares for the safety of our people. Please, whatever he’s said about me—”
“It wasn’t your father who named you traitor,” Azazel cut him off.
“What?” Matt said. “What are you talking about?”
“You abandoned us,” Azazel said. “You stole from the treasury, deserted your duty, refused to answer to inquiry. You’re working with Craftlings! While your father’s on his…business the Triumvirs are in charge and they called you out.”
“Asher,” Matt said. “It was him, wasn’t it?”
“Does it matter?” Bryant said.
“It does,” Matt insisted. “I know what my father is doing, and he can’t be doing it without help. A conspiracy against me just strengthens his position.”
“Conspiracy?” Azazel repeated derisively. “Look at you. Are you honestly trying to deny the charges against you?”
“I’m trying to explain,” Matt said. “I left to find answers, to find a way to stop my father. He’s trying to summon the Ultimate Power.”
“We know,” Azazel said.
Matt actually stumbled back a couple of steps. “What? You know? How could you go along with him when he’s endangering all of us?”
“You shouldn’t listen to every legend that your grandfather told you,” Azazel said. “The Ultimate Power is not the end of the universe. It’s a new beginning. All we’re doing is bringing back the forces that were alive at the start. Believe me, your father can handle it. Whatever comes through will be carefully controlled.”
“And if he can’t control it?” Matt demanded. “Don’t you know what he plans to do with those creatures?”
“He plans to destroy our enemies,” Azazel said. “And if you’re one of them, then he won’t hesitate to destroy you as well.”
“What is happening to you? All of you. I fought beside you once; I trusted you. Trust me when I say that playing with these forces will bring ruin down on us.”
“You expect us to trust you now?” Bryant said. “Maybe once, but not now, not with everything you’ve done. Not with Craftlings beside you.” Bryant’s arm flashed. Blue and white streaks of lightning crackled along his sleeve. “Now come with us quietly, or we’ll drag you back bloody.”
Matt put a hand to the sword handle at his shoulder. His eyes flitted from one Dog to the next. Cassie could almost see his mind racing. He glanced back at her and suddenly she knew what he was going to say. “Fine.” Matt dropped his arm. “I’ll come with you. Just don’t hurt these people. They’re harmless.”
“I doubt that very much,” Azazel said. He looked Cassie up and down thoughtfully. He must remember her as the new Keeper of the Tome, but she wondered if he could sense what else she had become. If he did, he didn’t show it. “But fine,” he said. “If you’ll submit to full justice, I’ll let your little friends go.” He caught Kenneth’s eye. “For now.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Bryant asked Azazel. The lightning around his arm sparked uncertainly.
“Our priority is to apprehend his Highness,” Azazel said. “Whatever they’re up to, it’s no threat to us.”
Bryant’s lightning flickered out. “Fine,” he said. “Come on.”
“All right,” Matt said. “Just give me a moment.” Turning around, he gave a solemn nod to Finn and Kenneth. Then he walked up to Cassie and put his arms around her.
Cassie stiffened. “Matt I…”
“Listen,” he whispered urgently into her ear. “This is the only way. You have to keep going. Take my signet ring, go to the Sprawl, and find Piper Llewellyn. She’ll pick up where I left off.” He pulled away slightly, looking deep into Cassie’s eyes. In the moonlight his eyes were blue, deep as the ocean. Loud enough for the others to hear he said, “Goodbye.”
“I don’t see why this is a problem,” Kenneth said. “He goes back to face his father, we gather the requirements for the Rite. It’ll be easier to find the Sentinels without a Dacruum to scare them off.”
“It’s a problem because we need his power,” Finn said. “You may not want to admit it, but his tattoo idea is the only shot we have to do the Rite without killing Cassie.”
“I won’t admit it because it’s not true,” Kenneth said.
“It is true though,” Pride pointed out. All six of them sat again in the cone of silence on their tree stumps.
“How would you know that?” Kenneth demanded of the faerie.
“Malcoh can manipulate power too, you know,” Pride said. “It’s one of the perks of having both Craftling and Dacruum magic. As long as the power is contained in small units beforehand, a practiced forger like Matthias would actually have an easier time directing the flow of power in greater quantities. Energy like that wants to move, you just have to let it.”
Finn shook her head sadly. “All we needed was the Sentinels. With his help we could have finished the Rite as soon as we found them. I don’t understand why he would give up like that. We could have taken those guys.”
“I…I don’t know,” Cassie said. She looked down at her hands. Kenneth hadn’t allowed her to give back the signet ring when they’d returned Matt’s things the day before. Now she twisted it in her hands. “I don’t think he was giving up. He said ‘it’s the only way’.”
“Is that what he said to you?” Finn asked.
“Yeah. The way he was looking at those guys…I think maybe he’s going back to do something stupid. He told me to look someone up, said she would help us.”
“Another Dacruum?” Finn said. “Like, someone with the same abilities? I guess that works.”
“No,” Kenneth said hotly. “No, no, no. We just got rid of our Dacruum problem; I’m not letting you pick up another one. At least with Matthias we knew he was chained to his cause. We won’t be able to predict whoever he’s sending us to.”
“If it’s someone he trusts, then it’s someone with the same interests in mind,” Cassie argued. “And maybe whoever they are can help us figure out where we stand with the Emperor. We need to know how much time we have, remember? The Sentinels aren’t going to be easy to find.”
“May I ask to whom he sent you?” Ardor interjected. “Perhaps we know them.”
“Now that’s interesting,” Discord said.
“Why?” Kenneth said. “Who is she?”
“Piper Llewellyn was quite a bit of gossip five years ago,” Discord said. “Nothing like your out-of-the-woodwork reappearance for the throne, of course, but still interesting. She’s a young noblewoman. The Llewellyns are high on the food chain, the equivalent of what you would call Archdukes. They run the third planet in the Daeorian system. Piper is the oldest daughter of the main family. She was set up and trained to inherit. But when she came of age she abandoned her family and joined the army. She was chosen for the Riders, a prestigious enough placement, but it was still quite the scandal. Her father disowned her for a time.”
“Matt mentioned living with a Magistrate Llewellyn,” Cassie said. “Is that that the family he grew up with?”
“It is,” Ardor said. “And Piper’s only a couple of years older than him; they would have been close as children. As far as I’ve heard, she’s cut from the same cloth—a bit self-righteous, but always for the right reasons. She wouldn’t betray you, not if she knew what was at stake.”
“You can’t know that just from gossip,” Kenneth said.
“I understand what drives people,” Ardor said. “All people. And you need to swallow your pride. You will need Dacruum help if you want to succeed.”
Kenneth bit back a retort. Instead he said, “I just don’t want to get caught up in whatever Matthias is doing. If we do need a Dacruum, it would be better if we chose them ourselves.”
“How, the yellow pages?” Cassie said. “We don’t know any other Dacruum. And I don’t think we’d be able to find someone powerful enough to do this kind of working just living on a farm somewhere. If this Piper is powerful and willing to help us, then she’s our only chance.”
“How are we supposed to find her, though?” Finn asked. “She part of one of those elite squadrons like the Dogs. We’re not going to be able to just walk up to her.”
“Matt seemed to think we could,” Cassie said. “He said we’d find her at the Sprawl. Is that some sort of geography term?” she asked the faeries.
“Actually, it’s the name of a bar,” Pride said.
“A bar?” Finn repeated.
“Yes. It is named after a place, but he can’t have meant there. The original Sprawl is a military training facility that most people, including us, don’t know where it is. But the bar is in Elyngan’s lower district, and it’s frequented almost exclusively by military personnel. A Rider like Piper would be a regular.”
“So what you’re saying,” Kenneth said, “is that we have to go to the Dacruum capital, walk into a bar full of soldiers, and talk to one of the most dangerous of them long enough to convince her to help us. Not to mention that even a cursory examination reveals us as Craftlings. Or that even if they don’t make us, we’re still on the side of a convicted traitor. Wouldn’t it be easier if you just killed us now?”
“Don’t be dramatic,” Finn said. “Yes, it’s dangerous but going to a bar is a hell of a lot better than trying to sneak into the barracks or something. People will be drunk and easier to hide among. All we have to do is get Piper alone long enough to talk to her.”
“Let me guess,” Cassie said, smiling. “You have a plan?”
Finn grinned back. “I have a plan.”
Kenneth wouldn’t transport them within a mile of the city. He insisted that the Dacruum capital was warded well enough to zap anything that so much as smelled of Craftling magic. From where they stood, the city was easily visible. Elyngan was built into a crater, its back against a high peak. The buildings were indeed carved out of the rock itself: towers of black stone stark against the red sky. It was certainly sturdy, with a high wall surrounding the open faces of the city to the west and south. There were three gates in the wall, heavily guarded and triple fortified.
Finn found a small cave in the foothills that she christened their base of operations. They stowed their packs in the back well hidden from view and did a last check of their weapons and disguises. Kenneth was loath to leave his bow behind, but he and Finn carried no more than a dagger each. Cassie tucked her wand in the waistband of her pants, out of sight. The faeries had manufactured new clothes for them to help them blend in. Kenneth and Cassie were dressed as inconspicuously as possible, in drab brown jackets and grey-washed denim. Kenneth pulled the hood of a black sweatshirt over his head to hide his hair. Cassie complained of the shoulder pads, but the faeries swore that was the fashion in Elyngan. Finn was disguised as a low-level soldier. She looked much like the Dogs had the night before: black fatigues, gloves, and a padded jacket. She tucked her long hair up under a knit cap.
“Are we ready?” Finn asked before they set out.
“As I’ll ever be,” Kenneth answered.
Cassie nodded. “Let’s go.”
There was sparse traffic on the road into the city. The sun was beginning to set off to the southeast, just touching the tip of the mountains. The color of the sky made it look like the peaks had been set aflame. Not a single one of them breathed as they passed through the gates of the city. There were guards stationed on either side of the road, not to mention the patrols atop the wall itself. But the three of them blended in well with the other few commuters heading back into the city.
Finn was surprised to see no vehicles anywhere, not even so much as a bike. But the people seemed content to walk. With the Triumvirs and their squads in the castle, the bulk of the population here in the capital was part of the Dacruum military. Perhaps they relished the leisure time walking from one end of the crater to another, when anywhere else they might go they would go fast.
It took at least until dark before they even found the Sprawl. The Nephilim had quibbled over the exact directions, and given conflicting advice on how to find the place. But with the street name to go by and the general flow of traffic, they eventually happened upon it. It was a rundown building near the end of a dead-end street. There was a widow’s walk jutting from the attic that looked rotted enough to crumble down any second. The windows were no more than arrow-slits in the rough-hewn stone, and the door was solid and reinforced with lead. “The Sprawl” was painted on a sign that hung from an iron peg beside the door.
This early in the evening, the street here was mostly deserted. Finn, Cassie, and Kenneth ducked into an alley. They found a good place near where the alley turned behind the bar to watch the street from the shadows.
After only a few minutes of waiting, Kenneth said, “How sure are we that this Piper woman is even going to show up?”
“Matt said we would find her here,” Cassie said. “We’ve changed times and planets so much recently I have no idea what day it is, but if it’s anything close to a weekend, she’ll definitely be here sometime tonight.”
“It was Tuesday on Earth when we stayed at the wayhouse,” Finn offered.
“And now it’s night on Alpha Daeori,” Kenneth said bitterly. “The only thing I know about this place is that their years are really short. I shouldn’t even be here. The only time I’ve ever crossed into the Dacruum realm was to kill them. That’s what we should be doing.”
“If you think you can just walk up and assassinate the Emperor then be my guest,” Cassie said. “It would save us a lot of trouble.”
He was quiet after that. The three of them settled in for a long wait. Since they didn’t know what Piper Llewellyn looked like, Finn insisted they wait until the bar was full before they made their move. Cassie almost nodded off twice leaning against a dumpster before Finn deemed it time to act.
As Finn stood, Kenneth unsheathed his knife. “You promise you’ll call for us if anything happens?”
Finn tapped the stone in her pocket that Kenneth had given her. If she smashed it on the ground, its pair stone would flash and Kenneth and Cassie would know she was in danger. “Nothing’s going to happen,” she assured him. “I’ve got this covered.”
As nonchalantly as she could, Finn ducked out of the alley and made her way into The Sprawl.
Inside it was no different than any given tavern on earth. Wood-paneled, a well-stocked bar, low orange lighting. The stone walls and large fireplace gave the place the kind of rustic feel that Finn imagined of medieval inns along lonely roads. Still, the soldiers that filled the place were anything but old-fashioned. As she made her way to the bar, Finn saw more than a few flashes of weapons, hidden or not. She hoped the faeries had been right, and her lack of magic would protect her from suspicion. If anyone cared to examine her closely, they’d know her for a trespasser in an instant.
Finn took a seat at the bar. The bartender was an older man with a beer gut and a loud voice. He was covered in hair, from his bushy grey beard to his thick forearms. He filled a few drinks before noticing Finn. “What’ll ye have?” he asked in rough Daeorian.
“Whatever’s on tap,” she said, praying that her translation was good enough.
He poured her a mug full of brown liquid that she was not at all tempted to taste. “Actually,” Finn said, before he could turn away. “I’m supposed to be looking for someone.”
“A grunt on an errand, eh?” The bartender clucked his tongue. “Who do you need me to point out?”
Finn pulled the letter out of her pocket. She’d folded a piece of paper into a small packet that held Matt’s ring. Piper’s name was scrawled across the front. “My sergeant sent me to give this to a Rider Llewellyn. I couldn’t find her up at the castle, but someone told me she might be here.” Finn tried to look bashful. “I don’t even know what she looks like.”
“See those people at the corner table there?” The Bartender pointed across the room. “Those are all Riders. You should get to know the higher ups, if you ever want to be one. Llewellyn’s the beauty with the dark hair.”
“Thanks,” Finn said. She toasted the bartender with her mug and took a long swill before approaching the Riders’ table. It tasted like cinnamon and fertilizer.
The Riders didn’t notice Finn as she approached so she got a good look at them. Most of them were older, with weather-beaten faces and shrewd eyes. One man was bald and wearing a bright red flak jacket. A woman with short hair bore a wrinkled scar where her left eye should be. Finn edged around to where Piper was sitting. She was, at least, relatively normal looking. Piper was in her early twenties with long raven hair twisted and pinned back with a stick that looked suspiciously sharp. Finn couldn’t tell how tall she was sitting down, but she was as muscular and un-ladylike as one might expect of a soldier. Whatever mounts the riders rode, it looked like no joke. Piper had a few scars of her own, and her young face was already bearing lines around the eyes. Her skin was lightly tanned, unlike the dark, ashy complexion Matt boasted, and her thin lips and small pointed nose made her eyes seem huge, though they were a more narrow, rounded almond shape. They were a deep chocolate brown, bright and attentive, and they noticed Finn as soon as she got close.
“Looking for someone?” Piper asked with a helpful smile.
Finn had to clear her throat before it would make noise. “Are you Rider Llewellyn?”
“Yes.” Piper sat a little straighter, wary.
Finn held out the packet. “This is for you.”
Piper took it, feeling the weight of the ring inside. “Who is it from?”
“I was just told to give it you,” Finn said. She wiped her sweaty palms on her pants.
“Ok,” Piper raised an eyebrow at Finn, but she opened up the packet. The ring fell into her hand. Finn could see Piper catch her breath. She schooled her face nicely as she quickly closed her fist around the ring. There were only seven words written on the paper: “Come with me. He needs your help.” Piper stood. “Looks like I’m summoned,” she said casually to the others. “Creed never knows when to stop working. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”
The other riders laughed and said goodbye as Piper grabbed Finn by the arm and steered her out of the bar. On the doorstep she shoved Finn outside; Finn barely managed to stumble without falling. Piper surged up close. She was tall. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“A friend,” Finn said, holding her hands up. “He gave me the ring and told me to find you.”
“He would never give up that ring,” Piper said. “Not unless…” she took a step back, looking fearfully at Finn.
“It’s not too late,” Finn told her. “Not yet. But if you are willing to help, you have to come with us. We can’t talk here.”
“Us?” Piper repeated.
Finn put her fingers in her mouth and let out a two-pitched whistle. Weapons drawn, Cassie and Kenneth emerged from the alley. Cassie, seeing nothing was wrong, quickly shrank her wand and put it away, but Kenneth kept a hold of his knife.
Piper narrowed her eyes, looking them up and down, and then gasped. “Craftlings? What is this?”
“It’s not a trap,” Cassie said quickly. “Matt was working with us. I know it seems crazy, but let us explain. He said you would pick up where he left off.”
Piper grew quiet. She looked down at the ring in her hand, twisting the gem so that it caught the light from the streetlamp. She ran a finger over the sigil carved there. Finally she closed her fist and looked back up at them. “All right, fine. Let’s go.”