Van slammed face-first into the stone wall hard enough to drive the breath from his lungs. He swallowed the unproductive urge to fight and let his body relax in the grip of the two men who held him pinned. Better to let them think he was cooperating. “Gentlemen, there’s no need for this. I was just on my way to see Croft.”
Fitz, the larger of the two thugs, let out a hoarse chuckle. “Sure you was. And with every stone you owe him, naturally?” Fitz bent Van’s arm the wrong way just shy of tearing his elbow.
Van winced. The pressure let off a bit. “Well, as to that… There was a problem.” The pain returned, worse than before. Van yelped.
“Master Croft don’t hold with tardiness.” Fitz pressed him into the wall to emphasize the point.
The rough surface scraped Van’s cheek almost raw. In his homeland, an outward-facing wall would have been smooth as a gemstone rather than this coarse, primitive masonry. Perhaps he never should have left, but staying hadn’t really been an option. He could get himself out of this, but doing so would reveal his identity and set his brother’s trackers on his heels once more, and after he’d just gotten comfortable in Ranthale.
Being taken back to Croft wasn’t in his best interest. Van was long overdue on a debt bigger than a moneylender of Croft’s reputation would let go. He’d be lucky if he left with all his fingers, and he rather liked his fingers.
“I can get the stones. I just don’t have them on me.”
They hauled him back and shoved him into the wall again, so hard his ears rang. “If you had the stones, why ain’t you paid yet?”
Van panted a few times to catch his breath before he could answer. “They’re in a safe place. I just haven’t had a chance to retrieve them.”
The tough that wasn’t Fitz leaned in, so close now that Van could smell the bitter Red on his breath. “We don’t believe you, but maybe Master Croft will.”
Fitz responded with a deep chuckle. “Sure he will. A gutter rat like this one has a stash of stones just waiting for him to pick up.”
The two thugs continued to banter back and forth in the local street pidgin that combined the Trader’s tongue and the Narth of the more educated quarters, but Van shut out their voices. He had to free himself and then flee the city before his brother’s agents could find him. Van closed his eyes. With two men threatening him with bodily harm, it wasn’t easy to empty his mind, but he managed. The long hours of his childhood spent training had finally paid off. He spread his fingers against the cool stone wall. He felt the structure of the material the way a virtuoso heard music, like a stream that flowed through him, imprinting itself on him.
Without warning, the pressure on his back decreased. A quick series of sharp sounds jostled him from his trance. Craning his neck around, he saw the thug that wasn’t Fitz in a heap at the base of the wall opposite him. Fitz let him go and turned to face the attacker.
Across from Fitz stood a woman of impressive size, a sword in its scabbard held in her left hand. Intricate carvings decorating the scabbard reflected the brightening dawn and marked her as one of the Dandari, a caste of warrior women rarely seen outside their lands. Her stance spoke of calm and readiness. Thankfully, the metal of her sword hadn’t been bared, so no one had to die—yet.
Her skin was a dark, deep brown, and she wore a chestplate fashioned of thin scales that caught the light with a faintly iridescent sheen.
Fitz took a step back. “We’ve no quarrel with you, Mistress. This is just business.”
She glanced past Fitz. Her black gaze locked briefly with Van’s before returning to the thug. She rested the hilt of her sword against her shoulder casually. “That’s not for you to say,” she responded in a purer form of the Trader’s tongue with none of the roundness of consonants of locals.
Fitz looked for a moment as if he might argue but thought better of that choice and ducked his head in a shallow bow. “Of course, Mistress. As you will.”
She watched Fitz as he collected his unconscious cohort and then dragged him down the alley. Once they were out of sight around a corner, she returned her attention to Van. “Are you all right?”
Van didn’t know how to answer that question. Though he’d fully recovered from the attack, he hadn’t yet managed to bounce back from the rescue. He nodded silently.
She looked both ways down the alley. Her white hair was bound into a multitude of tiny braids that whirled when she turned, creating a rhythmic spray of sound when the wooden beads capping each plait struck together. “We need to get out of here. Those two will be back with friends to collect you.”
“I doubt they have enough friends to make a difference.”
One corner of her mouth lifted. “Likely not.” She gestured with the hilt of her sword the opposite direction from where the thugs had gone. “Toward the market.”
Van hesitated only a moment before starting off the way she’d indicated. He wasn’t sure what she wanted, but at least she hadn’t assaulted him, and she definitely didn’t work for Croft. The Dandari were hired swords, certainly, but they didn’t work for stones. They worked for a cause.
The rough masonry walls of the alley were close, and the space between was crowded with refuse. At the first intersection, they came to a pile of broken crates that had been stacked to one side to clear a path through. A large bird with dark blue feathers sat atop the mound of wood. The bird tilted its head as Van approached, and he stopped short. A heavy ground bird native to the distant jungles where the Dandari trained, the grulie were exceedingly rare, and Van had never seen one in the flesh, only in books.
“If you’re waiting for him to say hello, he won’t,” the Dandari said from behind him. “They don’t really talk. It’s a folktale.” She whistled two short notes.
The bird spread his azure wings and launched himself at Van’s head. Van ducked instinctively and turned to see the bird landing on her right shoulder, where a thick leather pad afforded his claws extra grip.
She nodded toward the passage on the right. “Keep moving.”
“Where are we going?”
“Croft has half the city out looking for you and isn’t likely to give up soon. We need to find cover.”
His stomach tensed at the mention of the moneylender. That confirmed she hadn’t rescued him by accident. She knew exactly who he was. “Who sent you?”
Her words struck him hard enough that he gasped. He suddenly felt much less sure about following her anywhere. How could she know who his mother was? “And when did you speak to her?”
The Dandari flinched briefly and gestured him onward. “Go.”
Van stumbled forward, nearly tripping over some garbage before he gained his footing. He didn’t know if he should trust the Dandari, but he couldn’t walk away before knowing for certain whether his mother had sent her. What if she had an important message from his mother? “What’s your name?”
“Oritza, First of the Wicked Claw.”
He had the sense that he should know what her title meant, but anything he’d learned of the Dandari from his tutors had long since been forgotten. “I’m—”
She shoved his shoulder from behind to interrupt him. “I know who you are, but anyone listening might not. Let’s keep it that way.”
He eyed a shuttered window he passed with suspicion. Why hadn’t he thought of that? He huffed. He was usually so careful. “I was trying to be polite.”
“Then save the introductions for when we’re behind closed doors. Take your next left.”
He followed her instructions and turned into a larger passageway. After a few more turns he lost all sense of direction, but he knew they were near the market when he heard the shouting of barkers echoing off the tiled roofs on either side.
“This one,” Oritza said as he drew even with a door that didn’t look any different from the myriad others they’d passed. She blocked his way when he reached for the handle. “Wait.” She moved in front of him and then opened the door partway.
She motioned with her hand, and the bird launched from her shoulder into the darkened interior. After several seconds the bird whistled a long, low note. Oritza pulled the door open the rest of the way and gestured Van inside. The narrow hallway was dim, but a faint source of light glowed at the far end, so Van continued on. Ahead of him, the bird hopped along the ground, his claws scraping the tiled floor with each landing. When the bird reached the end of the hallway, he pushed open another door with his beak, and light flooded in.
Beyond the door stood a small room crowded with shelves that held cloth in every color Van could imagine and some he was quite sure he never had. Oritza moved past him to pull aside a heavily embroidered curtain with the hilt of her sword. The bird moved into the next room, presumably the front of a clothing shop.
After a moment, Oritza turned back to him and gestured to the lone chair crowded into the storeroom. “Sit.”
He sat heavily and tried to sift through the whirlwind that had been his morning. Croft’s thugs had found him on his way back to his room after a long night of losing at dice. He should have moved on when his debt had become untenable, but he’d grown fond of the city and had hoped he could win his way back to even. That had led, predictably, to more debts to other moneylenders. It was well past time to move on. More bothersome was how the troubles from his homeland had caught up with him. He thought he’d traveled far enough to leave them far behind. “How did you find me?”
She slid her scabbard from her shoulder and rested it against the shelves within easy reach. “A foreign man up to his chin in gambling debt. You don’t blend in as well as you imagine.”
Warrior priestess or not, the woman had a lot of nerve. He’d been doing all right taking care of himself for a long time before she’d gotten lucky and happened on him. He hadn’t even really needed her help. He’d been about to get himself out of trouble. “I didn’t need your help with those two thugs. I’ve dealt with worse.”
“The fallout of your gambling debts doesn’t concern me, but your brother’s trackers combing the city for you do. With most of the unsavory elements in the city also looking for you, it’s only a matter of time before they confirm you’re here. Croft might have detained you long enough for Dradon’s men to catch up with you.”
Van’s heart thudded in his chest as he unsteadily regained his feet. He hadn’t heard his brother’s name in so long that it sounded strange. There were trackers in the city? How had he not heard? He should have left long since. “If Mother sent you to drag me home, I’m not interested.”
She frowned and considered her words for a moment before meeting his eyes. “Your mother is dead.”
Van nearly fell into the chair. For a few seconds, he forgot how to breathe. Was this all his fault? Might he have done something to prevent it if he hadn’t left? “No.” He shook his head, not wanting to believe what she’d said. “That’s not possible!”
Her fingers flexed, though she didn’t reach for her sword. “I understand the news I bring is shocking, but take care who you accuse of lying. Braver than you have kissed my sword for less.” She didn’t look angry; she looked calm, patient, and that was somehow much more frightening.
Some said the Dandari couldn’t lie, but he wasn’t sure he believed that. If she wasn’t lying, she had to be wrong. “Maybe I’m not who…” But as his voice trailed off, he knew that wasn’t true. She’d already named his brother. She knew exactly who he was. “How did she die?” The word felt wrong in his mouth, too heavy somehow.
“I don’t know for certain. Word reached me through an intermediary who didn’t know the details.”
“Perhaps a year.”
How could he not have heard the news? He cursed himself for actively avoiding word of home in the years since he left. Either way, Croft’s goons were looking for him on top of his brother’s trackers, and it was past time to move on. “I have to go back to my room and collect my things.”
“You can’t go back. They might be waiting for you by now.”
He thought about what he would be abandoning. There was nothing he couldn’t do without. He’d been traveling light since he left Izal almost four years before, with few possessions and fewer attachments. “Right. I can slip out the southern gate with some merchants on their way to Thalen.”
“They’ll have hired people to watch the gates for you. Leaving by boat is much safer.”
“I don’t have the stones for that.”
Oritza dug in a pouch at her waist and came up with a small handful of pebbles a little smaller than her thumb, dull and valueless. “Consider it a test to prove you are who I think you are.”
Van stared hard at her hand and then slowly shook his head. The temptation was always there, gnawing at the back of his mind. “They’ll be able to track me if they find anything I’ve Shaped. I could have gotten myself out of debt a hundred times if it was as easy as that.” Anyone with a glimmer of the talent could use items he’d Shaped as a lodestone, following the resonance right to him. Time and distance muted the effect, but much too slowly for him to risk in anything but the most dire emergency.
“The stones won’t stay in the city for them to find. I can get us a berth on a ship that won’t be back in this port for over a year. Your trail will be cold as winter in the Reaches by then.”
Van’s fingers itched with the urge to take the pebbles from her. He stretched his hand forward before he had fully made up his mind. When he took the rocks from her, his fingers grazed her calloused palm.
He closed his hand. The rough surface of the pebbles abraded his skin as he tightened his grip. The deep part of him that knew the pebbles and what they were made of came forward. Van pictured the tiny units that made up the rocks as pieces of a puzzle. He nudged one, forcing it into line with another. As he grew more familiar with the pebbles in his hand, the process was easier. Piece after piece fell into place.
Sweat beaded on his forehead as he concentrated. He moved more and more particles into line, forming a crystalline structure that spun outward from the center. He imagined the delicate latticework he built, one segment at a time, as though he were a weaver of the finest threads.
Tension built as he came closer to completing the pattern. The structure had a tendency to come apart, to unwind in chaos, but he held the particles in place with part of his awareness while he continued forcing more into line. As he spread his consciousness to grab more and more threads and hold them in place, his essence thinned until he felt he might dissolve and become one with the structure he built.
When he nudged the final piece of each pebble into line, the entire formation snapped into place and held. The backlash of the energy released when the lattice was complete felt like a switch connecting with some soft and vulnerable place inside him.
He swayed on his feet when the second-to-last stone was complete. A strong hand encircled his upper arm and held him upright. He continued to work, spinning the particles as fast as he could before his strength could give out. When he was done with the final stone, his head snapped back when the energy struck him.
Van blinked blearily. Oritza stared at him while still holding him up, a frown turning the corners of her mouth downward. With effort, he forced his fingers open, willing his hand not to shake as the fatigue set in. In his palm sat five glittering gemstones.
Oritza bowed her head. “I’m pleased to meet you, Vanson Stoneteller.”
Oritza helped Vanson to the chair before stepping back with the stones in her hand. She’d heard the stories, of course. Visually it wasn’t as exciting as she’d hoped. The boy looked more like he was suffering stomach upset than doing anything mystical. Nestled in her hand, however, was the proof. The stones were worth a not-small fortune. She rolled one of the gems between her thumb and forefinger, admiring the smoothness. They were perfect.
She glanced at Vanson again. Dark hair disheveled from his run-in with the moneylender’s thugs, he was worth an even larger fortune than she held in her hand. The price for his reclamation was gigantic, and growing larger all the time, a fact quite at odds with his lack of caution. His brother was desperate to get him back. She’d encountered hirelings tracking him just today. She wasn’t sure how they knew he was in the city, but she had to get him out of there. Every minute they stayed increased the likelihood those pursuing him would find him. The deep reddish tone of his skin set him apart from the golden tans of the locals and made him easy to pick out of a crowd.
Vanson mopped at his face with a handkerchief and showed her a boyish smile that displayed how young he truly was. “It’s been a long time since I dared try that. Felt good.”
Oritza pocketed the stones and picked up her sword from where it rested against the shelves. She held it for a moment, the carved hilt in her hand calming her slightly, before slinging it over her back. “Don’t get used to it. That’s the last time until I get you someplace safe.”
“And where exactly is that?”
She couldn’t answer that, not without lying. If she told him she planned on returning him home, he’d dig in his heels all the way and make everything, including getting him safely out of the city, more precarious. Her left hand tightened around the hilt of her sword. “Right now, that’s out of this city.”
“How do you propose we get to the docks without someone seeing me?”
Oritza grinned. “I’ve got a plan.”
Van didn’t like the Dandari’s expression one bit. She seemed far too pleased with herself. “And what does that plan entail?”
“We disguise you as someone those hunting you will never expect.” Oritza walked along one of the shelves until she got to a stack of bright green cloth.
The only people he’d ever seen wear a shade that outlandish were Valish Brides. He glanced back at Oritza. She held up a piece of fabric over the lower half of her face and chuckled when she saw he understood. “Absolutely not.”
“No one who sees us will ever suspect.”
“That’s because it’s ridiculous.”
Oritza shook her head. “You’re narrow enough through the shoulders that you could pass for a robust woman.”
Van narrowed his eyes. “I’m the tallest man in my family!”
She waved a dismissive hand. “I know. I’ve met Dradon. He threatened to arrest me, actually.”
“Well, then you saw him on a good day.”
Oritza chuckled. “He and I will meet again. I owe him a debt I intend to repay.”
“You’ll have to let me know when. I might consider going home to witness that.”
The mirth disappeared from her face as she handed him the veil. “Unless you want to end up home sooner than you’d like, you should listen to me.”
He wadded the fabric awkwardly in his hand. It felt smooth and silky between his fingers. “No one is honestly going to believe I’m a Valish Bride.”
Oritza snorted. “You’d be surprised how unobservant people can be, even when the truth is staring them in the face.” She picked out a few more armfuls of fabric. “You need to lose the coat and the boots.”
He stared at her for a few seconds, not moving to comply. When her expression didn’t change, he started to unbutton his overcoat. “I don’t see how this is going to work.”
She gestured for him to hurry up with one laden arm. “Valish Brides are covered from head to foot. All they are going to see is your shape under the cloth. Don’t talk and avoid eye contact, and everyone will assume you are exactly what you appear to be.”
Van removed his boots, then slipped the coat from his shoulders, placing it over the back of the chair. “I don’t move like a woman. I don’t act like one.”
Oritza laughed and handed him a bolt of bright green fabric. “Do I?”
“That’s entirely different.”
“Is it?” Her expression displayed how much she was enjoying his embarrassment.
He brandished the cloth. “I have no idea what to do with this.”
“Around your waist. Tied with an overhand knot.” She watched him closely. “What do you think it means to move like a woman?”
He followed her instructions, circling the fabric low on his hips. “They move lightly; they glide.”
Sighing with exasperation, she nudged his hands away, then raised the cloth higher, almost to the bottom of his ribs, and cinched the knot tight. She fastened that with a thin wooden clip. “Is that so? I wish someone had told me that.”
Due to the constriction of the fabric, his next breath was shallow. “That’s too tight.”
“It’s fine.” Oritza nodded curtly. “Take off your shirt.”
He complied with numb fingers, a swiftly shrinking part of him still hoping this was a joke. She draped a longer section of cloth over his left shoulder and around him. The fabric whispered over his skin, tickling him. He tried not to move, and almost managed, until she tied the knot under his right arm.
“Stop squirming.” Oritza adjusted the level of the wrapping higher.
He made an exaggerated cough to cover his laughter. “Sorry.”
She raised an eyebrow but kept up with what she was doing. He hadn’t noticed before that they were the same height. She wrapped the last of the cloth she held around his shoulders as a shawl and tucked it over his elbows to hold it in place.
He felt thoroughly, though surprisingly not uncomfortably, swaddled. “How am I supposed to move with all of this?”
“You’ll manage.” She took the sheer fabric from him and placed it over his head, letting the long length of it fall over his shoulders. She tucked the corners up around the lower half of his face. After setting a burnished circlet around the crown of his head to hold it all in place, she looked him over.
He couldn’t take her silent appraisal any longer. “I look ridiculous, don’t I?”
“You look fine.” Oritza turned him so he faced into a mirror.
His mouth opened behind the green fabric of the veil when he saw his reflection. If he hadn’t been looking at himself, he would have been certain he stood opposite a Valish Bride on her way to her spouse-to-be. The draping cloth gave him the appearance of softness and curves where he knew he had none. “I don’t believe it.”
“Your brother wouldn’t even recognize you, and his hirelings certainly won’t.” Oritza knelt and pulled a pair of sandals from under a shelf. “Sit.”
He moved unsteadily, still unsure what to do with himself and all the extra fabric, but eventually found the chair. She bent to the task of putting on his shoes without a word.
Van watched her, embarrassment heating his face as she drew his skirt up over his knees. He didn’t know why, but he felt strangely exposed. She rolled up one leg of his pants to just below the knee, then slid the sandal over his foot. The caress of her calloused fingers over the seldom touched skin was intimate in a way he hadn’t expected. She repeated the task on the other side, then pulled his skirt back into place.
“There.” She stood smoothly and looked him over again. “This will do.” She held out a hand toward him.
After a moment, he caught her intention. He slipped his hand into hers and let her pull him to his feet. Catching sight of them in the mirror from the corner of his eye, he marveled at how the simple act of allowing her to help him up changed his posture and made him seem like someone else. He was the very image of a Valish Bride.
Oritza fussed with the fabric for a few seconds before turning to bundle his clothes and boots into a nearby bag. “Remember, keep your mouth shut and your eyes down. Follow behind me and do what I say when I say it. We’ll be out of this city in no time.”
She waited for Van to nod, then unslung her sword. With the bag over her shoulder, she walked to the curtain, pulling it aside with the hilt of her sword and peeking beyond. She held the curtain for him, and he walked through into the storefront. Fabric was piled high on all sides in a cacophony of color that hurt his head.
An old man with a bent back and a once-white apron stained in a multitude of colors shuffled from the front to make an awkward bow before them. “I hope you found all to your liking?” He made a sweeping gesture with one arm to usher them through the shop.
“Yes. Did you deliver the crate to the ship?”
Van pondered the question as he tried to negotiate the room without catching his flowing clothing on anything. Had she been so certain he would agree? Was he as predictable as that? Truly, he hadn’t had a choice. Had he?
“Of course. All is as you instructed.”
“Thank you for your faithful service.” She kissed her fingers and pressed them to his forehead. “May you find what you seek.”
The gesture wasn’t a common one here, and the last person Van had seen use that blessing was his mother. He pushed the last of his doubts aside, determined to find out how Oritza knew his mother and what she knew about what had happened to her.
The old man smiled and straightened somewhat. “Always, Sister.”
Oritza bowed to him and then whistled two sharp notes. The blue bird dropped from a high shelf to land on her shoulder. She paused to scratch his head before moving to the front of the shop and looking out. She motioned to Van and then stepped through the doorway.