Master of One – Jaida Jones, Danielle Bennett

Tomman Hail of House Ever-Loyal was going to die before the sun rose. It wasn’t as heroic as it sounded. It was a lonely, terrible thing. Made worse by the lonely, terrible knowledge weighing on his chest. The secret he’d uncovered. It’ll be our lives if we’re caught, he’d said. Now, as then, he believed the cause worth the cost. Even as he heard the pounding at the door announce the Queensguard’s arrival to his family home, Captain Baeth at their head. The middle of the night wasn’t an hour at which anyone bore pleasant news. They carried torches of fire, not shards of the Queen’s mirrorglass. Danger flickered in the wicked orange light that dappled their well-trained faces. Better them than a sorcerer, Tomman thought. Father led them into the sitting room. Mother, straight-backed and proud in her dressing gown, asked if Baeth would like some tea. The captain had already trained her unyielding gaze on Tomman.

Having stood opposite that look for countless lessons in sword and dagger, he knew there was no parrying it. “Tomman Hail Ever-Loyal.” The Queensguard stood straighter when Baeth spoke. None of them would look at Tomman, at his parents. “You will be remanded to the Queen’s mercy.” Live steel strapped at their waists. Authorized to use force if command wouldn’t suffice. Whether Tomman resisted or not, the result wouldn’t change. He’d seen where this path might end —too soon—and he’d taken it anyway. Made the path his.

No illusions of being stuffed in a cell to go mad. What he’d discovered couldn’t be hidden. It had to be erased. If the Queen hoped to maintain the pretense of civility in front of his parents, Tomman intended to play along. It would make this easier for them. “I surrender,” he said immediately. “Like shitfire you surrender.” Lord Ever-Loyal came to stand beside his son. “Baeth, I learned the blade from your father before he was pinning your diapers. When the Queensguard take a man in the middle of the night—we know he won’t return.

What is this?” Captain Baeth shook her head. Her hand must have been forced. She would never have done this willingly, but she was keeping her grief private, admirably stone-faced. Then Tomman saw her eyes, blank and cracked as an old mirror. His fear bottomed out into despair. She was no friend of his, no friend to anyone but the Queen. “Not another step. The slightest resistance could be cause for deadly force.” “What are the charges? Against my son?” Father swept the Queensguard with a practiced gaze. “These are no escorts.

” Movement from the side and rear. A hiss of steel. Lady Ever-Loyal gasped and the Queensguard whirled with blades in hand to face Ainle, Tomman’s nine-year-old brother, who’d stepped into the room rubbing sleep from his eyes. He stopped short, cry cut off, a red stain blooming along the collar of his blue pajamas. Groundskeeper Eraith entered at the same moment, straight from the stables with pitchfork in hand, to ask what the trouble was. Tomman yelled to stop it, but it had already begun. The shouting, the weapons, the smell of fresh blood, and the Queen’s lifetime of lies. More than sufficient powder and flame. Baeth signaled the attack. Tomman’s vision became a blur of his mother’s howling mouth, her flying hair.

She raced to Ainle’s side as his father drew his Queensguard sword. Lord Ever-Loyal was an exceptional duelist. But he stood against thirty swordsmen. He refused to kneel, so they cut him down, across belly and chest. Blood on the starburst tile Mother loved so much. Tomman didn’t see her body lying with the others. Had she fled in time to warn the girls? Tomman fought, but Baeth had always bested him in practice. Now was no different. She brought the hilt of her sword into the bone of his cheek. He staggered, fell to his knees.

She caught him and pinned him to the wall with a knife through his palm. Held the point of her sword, still sticky with Lord Ever-Loyal’s insides, to Tomman’s throat, forcing his chin up so he had to watch. They’d never planned to take him alive. They were merely saving him for last. Mother’s impeccably set dining room was a mess. Three of the seven fae-glass windows were shattered. Tomman broke free, struggled with Baeth, used the knife that pierced his hand to cut her bottom lip and chin. Baeth had the bigger weapon, the longer range. The struggle ended quickly. He was pinned again.

The slaughter continued. All night there was weeping, begging, servants spitted while Tomman was forced to bear witness. Iron-toed boots in his gut and iron-soled boots crushing his hands. Despite everything he knew, because of everything he knew, he didn’t crack. He tried to goad the Queensguard into killing him before a sorcerer could arrive and begin the true torture. He wasn’t dead yet. Unfortunately. He sat, pinned again to the wall between two broken windows, Baeth’s blade neatly lodged between his heart and his liver. Steel sheathed first in muscle, then plaster. The Queen’s crest upon the hilt: a golden two-faced sun stained with Tomman’s blood.

At last the sorcerer Morien appeared before him. “I keep you alive because you have something I want,” he said. “You will tell me where it is.” The sun peered over the horizon. The sorcerer was gathering fragments of silver-polished glass toward him simply by curving his fingers and beckoning them closer. They shivered and shuddered across the tile. Instead of reflecting the pale light, they absorbed it. They showed Tomman a thousand secrets he shouldn’t have known, from the eyes of the men and women and children, his family, who had died that night. Their wishes, their bargains, their silenced dreams. Each let him know that he would risk this tragedy again, if he were given the chance.

Tomman could barely move, but he rolled his face away. The sorcerer wouldn’t be the last thing he saw in this life. Cool, damp wind touched his cheek, kissed by the jagged lip of the windowsill. It stirred the hair on Ainle’s head—he lay by Tomman’s side, otherwise unmoving—where it wasn’t plastered to his scalp with blood. Tomman remembered his laugh, how the silly lad had begged to hold Father’s Queensguard broadsword, though he didn’t have the strength yet to lift it. Outside the window, in the trammeled grass of Mother’s garden, Tomman thought he saw a Queensguard running. Not toward the house—away from it. Flinging his blade into one of Mother’s rosebushes. Peeling off layers of his uniform as if they burned his skin. Driven from the Queen’s service by the horror of the Queen’s service.

Real or hallucinated, it was a sign. No matter who the Queen controlled, no matter what she stole, no matter how she armored herself, there would always be cracks through which the truth would shine. “No,” Tomman finally answered the sorcerer, “I don’t think I will.” Holding Ainle’s little hand with his broken one, Tomman shifted to the right. Sliced his heart cleanly in two—and smiled. Nothing left for the sorcerer to use. 1 Rags ONE YEAR LATER Sixteen days. Rags had been in a cell in the dungeon known as Coward’s Silence for sixteen days. They felt as long as his sixteen years. He wasn’t planning to stick around for much longer.

But trying to escape blind, without a plan, would double his guard. So he’d taken his time. Thought it through and decided. The next time the Queensguard tried to transport him would be his best chance to make it out. Rags was no stranger to this business. He’d been in and out of cells since he could flex his fingers to steal. He’d even developed a system of ranking each of the city’s seven jails from best to worst on a scale of one to five points. One: Cell condition. (Down by the docks, after a rainfall, he’d once slept in two inches of water, and nursed a lingering cough for the next two years and seven days.) Two: Meals.

(Depending on where a thief got snatched, he could count on three square a day and cheese with only a little mold on it. Some got caught on purpose, when pickings were lean.) Three: Bed. (As in, was there one?) Four: The company. (Local drunks and fellow thieves, or split-knuckles and murderers? Barely ten, Rags had wound up locked in a cell with a rapist who wouldn’t shut up about pretty girls and their pretty curls, until one of the guards knifed him during change-of-duty.) Five: The quality of the guards. Rags was holding off on giving Coward’s Silence a score. He hadn’t heard a peep since his arrival, though the quiet didn’t mean he was sleeping easy. He kept track of the passing days by scratching marks onto the stone wall with a fingernail. Dust and dirt and damp grime packed the space beneath his nails so densely that they split, but Rags kept up the practice diligently.

Dutifully. Dug deep so there’d be no uncertainty. For a bastard thief with no faith, this was the god he prayed to. “You’ll give up eventually,” the man in the next cell over said, voice muffled through stone and nasty with loneliness and despair. Rags imagined him as more skeleton than living man. “Everyone gives up eventually. Took me three hundred days before I stopped counting. See how long it takes you.” Rags ground his teeth and refused to answer. He had his own cell, a point in the place’s favor.

Coward’s Silence knew how to treat its degenerates, letting them ignore each other in peace. Sixteen days. The Queensguard would come to transport him eventually. They were famous for their successful interrogations. That thought coaxed a snort from his nose. The job was supposed to have been simple. Blind Kit had finally pinpointed the location of the Gutter King’s underground vault. The haul of Rags’s dreams—the infamous collection of pirate gold and stolen Ever-Nobles’ fortunes, snatched in the chaos when their families fell out of favor and were run out of town. After the Queensguard burned House Ever-Loyal last year, countless early Radiance forgeries flooded the Cheapside Gray-Market. Rags didn’t buy into the frenzy, knew the real loot had already been smuggled deep underground.

That cache kept the undercity running, kept the Gutter King stroking the strings. Rags, with help from Blind Kit, was going to relieve the Gutter King of some of it. Not all. Not enough that they’d become a target, but enough to make life easier for years. Rags had even considered the possibility of going soft, of buying a nice house in a cheap part of town. He could take up juggling, or some other thing that took quick hand-eye work but carried fewer risks than thieving. Rags had made it into the sewers, past the shadowy henchmen and their spring-traps, all the way to the fucking door of the vault. The man who’d been tapped to rig the explosion hadn’t lit the fuse. Instead, the grating had opened. Out had poured dozens of Queensguard in silver and black.

Only one wall had separated Rags from the biggest score of his life. In the blink of an eye, it was gone. Someone must have sold him out. Not Kit, who’d had a bounty on her head for close to two years, as long as she’d been blind. She wouldn’t go near the Queensguard after they’d run the last healers and hedgewitches out of the city. To Rags, her fear and mistrust made her reliable. Sure, a handful of other thieves in the Clave might risk a run-in with the Queensguard over a fat score, but Rags was careful not to make enemies with those crazy gamblers. Think about that later. The interrogation was coming, and from the way they’d thrown him in, left him to stew for sixteen days, they were planning something extra nasty. Rags ran his tongue over the split in his upper lip—it stung, infected and bound to scar—and set to cleaning the dirt from under his nails.

He’d waited too long to be set free, returned to his tools: delicate metal lockpicks that worked in a pinch for cleaning under an infected nail. He’d have to do it by hand. Rags set to the task, careful and slow. He couldn’t afford to damage the other, irreplaceable tools of his trade: his wicked quick fingers that danced with a hummingbird’s speed and could sting like a wasp when called to. Sixteen days. He wasn’t going to lose count. He marked the passage of time by the delivery of his meals, if they could be called that, and chewed the moldy bread, not bothering to spit out the maggots. Protein. Keep his strength up, his mind sharp. The cell stank of his filth, but that honed his senses, kept his teeth bared.

He wouldn’t rot in this place. As soon as the Queensguard came for him, Rags would get out. The Queensguard finally showed when he was drifting through the vulnerable shadow space between sleep and waking life. The man in the next cell laughed darkly, choked, spat. Rags’s eyes adjusted to the sudden fall of light, scanned the row—two rows—of Queensguard for a weak point, and found none. Hands on him, hoisting him to his feet. No jeers about his condition, no introductory punches. The royal seal on their breastplates. Rags swore like a dying pig. The Queensguard ignored his vulgarity and hauled him out.

.

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