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"What?" Joron pivoted back and forth between them. "The handmaiden?"

Thane blinked, trying to reconcile the girl in front of him with the one locked in Kyroth's estate. The last time he saw her, she was a wearing a silk dress and playing the harp. Now...

"Are you wearing ... trousers?" He took a step forward, examining her more closely. "Wait, those are mine."

"They were yours," Kira corrected through gritted teeth. "I had to hem them up a good six inches. Not to mention this hole." She put a hand on her thigh, and it came back red and slick with blood. "Thanks for that, by the way."

Joron sheathed his sword as he stepped up to join them. "You ran."

"Of course I ran! "You threw a knife at me, you bastard!"

"Enough," Thane said. "Both of you." He knelt down to examine her wound. The blade had only grazed her leg, but the cut was still a handspan long. "Joron, I need antiseptic, a needle, and some—."

The other man made a grunting sound behind him. "Do I look like an apothecary, kombre?"

"Apothecaries don't throw knives at innocent girls," Kira muttered.

Thane turned around. "You don't have anything in your bag?"

Joron shrugged. "Long trip from Dragonshard."

Footsteps echoed from down a nearby staircase, followed by the orange glow of lantern light against the fog.

"Fine, let's get out of here then." He put one hand behind Kira's back, and the other beneath her legs. She winced as he lifted her.

They set off down the street, passing a dozen other smithies and shops along the way. Kira clung to him as he jogged behind Joron, her heart beating like a frightened bird.

Joron skidded to a halt under a sign that read, "The Secret Ingredient."

"This'll do." He pulled a pair of small instruments from his bag and made quick work of the lock.

The shop's inside was no bigger than a stable stall. Jars and bottles covered the shelves, packed so tightly that one wrong move could cause an avalanche. Everything smelled of linens and oils and herbs.

He lowered Kira on the counter and used Ethermancy to light the candles. Glass bottles clinked together as Joron rummaged for supplies, handing them over without comment.

Thane poured the antiseptic on a fresh piece of linen and dabbed at Kira's wound. To her credit, she didn't even wince.

"Want me to do the stitches, kombre?"

"I can stitch a simple cut," Thane said.

"Aye, might not look pretty, though."

"Don't worry." Kira tried to appear confident through her gritted teeth. "I have enough scars already. If anything, my right leg was looking a little bare."

Thane's lips curled into a faint smile, then he nodded toward the door. "Go stand watch. The last thing we need is another surprise visitor."

After Joron left them alone, Kira seemed to find a sudden interest in her knees.

Thane stuck his hand in the jar of fadeflower, measuring a pinch of the dried leaves. "So ... are you going to tell me how you got out?"

"I picked the window lock with a pair of needles."

"The Templars let you have needles?"

"No." Kira looked up and gave a surprisingly jaunty smile. "But they let the servants have them."

"And then you climbed out of a six-story tower."

"I'm not afraid of heights," she said with a small shrug. "And it felt good to climb again. I know it was stupid, but I got so anxious locked in that tiny room."

Thane couldn't blame her for that. But Aegon, he still knew next to nothing about this girl. He had heard several secondhand stories of her old life in Kalamir, but he didn't know it involved pickpocketing, climbing buildings, or following people into dark alleys.

"Here." He gave her the pinch of orange-colored leaves. "You'll need to chew these."

Kira wrinkled her nose. "What is it?"

"Fadeflower. It's an anesthetic"

"So it'll make me drowsy?"

"It will help with the pain," he said. "More importantly, it will help you hold still while I stitch you up."

"I still need to climb back into the tower tonight." She gestured upward. "I mean, I can't just stroll through the front door like you can."

"Hmm ... fair point," Thane let half of the leaves fall back into the jar. "A smaller dose will wear off within the hour. I just hope you have a high pain tolerance."

"I'm sure I've had worse." Kira brought the leaves to her lips and settled back against the stone wall.

Thane narrowed his eyes in concentration as the needle made its slow back and forth over her cut. Kira remained silent as he worked, but he felt her eyes on him.

"You could have run," he said after a moment's quiet. "This whole time ... you could have escaped whenever you wanted."

"So could you." Her voice wavered as the needle stabbed her skin.

"That's different. I have a duty to my family."

"And I don't?"

Thane didn't reply.

She let out a sharp exhale. "You think I should have run while I had the chance?"

"I'm glad you didn't run." Thane pulled a stitch tight and met her gaze. "But I'm also surprised."

Kira was struggling to keep her eyes open now as the fadeflower took effect. "Do you know why I volunteered to take your sister's place?"

He hunched over again, bringing the needle down for another pass. "I've heard the story before; Ashara freed you from slavery six years ago. You owed her a debt after that."

"Partially," Kira said, sounding tired. "It's true that she saved me, but I saved her first, you know. When I found her, she was wondering around Kalamir alone. Shipwrecked, barefoot with her clothes in tatters. I was a slave to the Black Vortons at the time, one of the gangs that controlled the lower city.

"I knew your sister was in trouble, so I hid her in the slave quarters when Palatine's soldiers came searching for her. Ashara was so grateful—she promised to free us all when she got back to Dragonshard. I didn't believe her at the time. I thought she was some naïve noblewoman. Someone who knew nothing about the real world ... making promises she couldn't keep.

"That night, she contacted your father telepathically..."

"Through the Ethereal," Thane offered.

Kira nodded. "Palatine's ships had a blockade around the island, but your father sent a smuggler in to rescue her. I helped her sneak down to the docks the next night. When she walked up that ramp, I thought for sure I'd never see her again. I thought she'd forget about me the second she was free. I returned to the Vorton's hideout. The gang-leader, Cravik, was holding court there like a king."

Thane finished his stitching and began wrapping his work under boiled linen.

"An hour later, Ashara Solidor came bursting through the front doors. The guards tried to stop her, but she made their weapons grow hot in their hands. She dimmed the torches, and the chamber faded to near-blackness.

"She offered to buy me, but Cravik refused her offer. She tried threatening him with her Ethermancy, and with her armies, but he stood his ground. Finally, she offered something priceless."

"Her Etherite ring," Thane said. "I remember. Father was furious when she returned."

Kira's blue eyes grew wide and serious. "Ashara took off the metal covering, and the gem's glow was like the sun in that dark place. Pure white, blinding light. You have to understand; in a city like Kalamir, most go their whole lives without seeing even one piece of Etherite. Ashara could have bought his palace with that ring, and they both knew it. She even told him as much."

She smiled sadly. "My own father sold me to Cravik to pay off a gambling debt. But Ashara ... she was like the Aeons from the stories. Utterly fearless and selfless. That's why I chose to come back to Dragonshard with her. Not because I owed her, but because I believed in her. Because I wanted to be like her someday ... to make a difference in this world."

A long silence grew between them as Thane finished wrapping the wound.

"So why are you here?" she asked him

Thane shook his head, running a hand through his hair. "Unlike you, I didn't choose to be a hostage."

"You couldn't have refused this mission?" she asked. "I mean, everyone in Dragonshard knows you and your father don't see eye to eye. He could hardly force you to do this."

"He couldn't force me," Thane agreed. "But I've failed my family before. I can't fail again. Not if I want the people of Dragonshard to accept me as their king."

Before he could say anything else, Joron gave the door a quick knock. Thane waved his hand, and the candles flickered out into wisps of smoke.

Kira climbed to her feet, using his shoulders to steady herself. Then she surprised him with a kiss on the corner of his jaw.

Perplexed, Thane pulled away. It wouldn't have been right to let her do that in her drugged state. He tried to meet her eyes again, but they were unreadable in the darkness. "What was that for?"

"I was afraid I might not get another chance." She held his gaze, arms still over his shoulders. "I'm sorry for following you tonight."

Thane shrugged, trying to ignore his pounding heart and the lavender scent of her hair. "I'm sorry for ordering Joron to throw a knife at you."

Before they left, he took a single gold sus from his purse and set them on the counter. A month's worth of wages for a small shop like this.

The back door creaked as they slipped out, back into the night streets and toward their prison.

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David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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