Crimson-cloaks were roaches upon Scanla’s streets. Too many of them gathered in such a short span, even Siobhan was nervous as they trotted through the overflowing streets, winding their way to the gates. Though the Vanguard mages used magic, none had the ability for instant travel. Yet the Vanguard General ranks had doubled in the night. Siobhan could reach out and touch one around every corner.
Anyone, man or woman, with light brown hair and blue eyes were stopped by the crimson-cloaks. If they resisted the use of the truth serum the Vanguard Generals used like candy, they were arrested. Siobhan knew all too well that arrest meant they’d never be seen again. Her heat skipped a beat more than once when the crimson-cloaks halted their horses for a closer inspection of their riders.
She glanced to Wren. He sat straight in his saddle, though his hands twitched against the reins. His glance would draw toward her whenever a crimson-cloak spent too much time staring at them. The changeling potion would hold. It had to hold. Not even Siobhan could fight through the amount of crimson-cloaks filling the streets if it didn’t. They pooled into buildings, explored alleys—they were blood upon the dirt and cobblestones. No joy carried through the streets of Scanla that day, nor would it for several days until they accepted the boys they sought were gone.
And gone they would be if Siobhan had her way.
Siobhan took a deep breath when the towering eastern walls of the city came into view through the mist. So close. They were so close. She kept a tight watch on the faces of the Vanguard Generals trolling the streets. If her once drugged crimson-cloak was among them, their game could be over. With the crystillium in his system, neither her totems nor the potion Ivan used should’ve worked on him. The crystillium should’ve negated their effects. It made her nervous, too nervous, trying to figure out how they’d worked or if he’d been faking it. If he had, she’d be dead. He’d be able to identify her on the spot.
She’d been careless helping Wren. Why had she been so careless? What was it about the moron that made her want to help him? This wasn’t like her. Not anymore. She wasn’t the kind of person to stick her neck out for anyone, least of all a stranger. Now she was knee deep in crimson-cloaks who would enjoy feasting on her entrails and bathing in her blood. All because a one-time noble stole a purse she could’ve easily replaced in time.
“Look them in the eyes when we reach the gates,” Siobhan whispered. “I’ll do most of the talking, but hide your fear.”
Wren nodded and loosened his grip on the reins. Wind whipped his hair around but he didn’t seem to care. One hand dropped to his side as he leaned back in the saddle. In an instant he went from the tight backed, on nerve, fool that he was, to nothing but a casual rider ready for the long ride to Firnlan. It impressed her. Maybe there was potential in him after all.
“Where ya ‘eaded?” a crimson-cloak asked. He raised a hand and stepped between them and the gate, not that Siobhan would’ve dared trying to ride through him. Nyka cantered before stopping, her hoof ground against the worn stone leading out of the city. Air pushed from her snout as she shook her head. Siobhan pet the old horses head, though she didn’t want to sit still any longer than Nyka did and didn’t blame the horse for her nerves.
“We’re headed to Firnlan to visit our sick grandmother. We’re hoping to beat the first snow,” Siobhan said. She cast her eyes to the gray sky darkening the further east the clouds traveled. What little sun had been present when they left the tunnel by Stone street was no longer visible. A chill swept through the city, though it wasn’t cold enough to make Siobhan shudder through her cloak, she did it anyway. Her lip trembled as she looked back to the crimson-cloak. Her eyebrows knitted together as she touched a hand to her chest. “I’m so fearful we won’t make it. Grandma doesn’t want to be alone this winter, but my lug of a brother here refused to leave sooner. Do you think we’ll be all right? I’m so frightful of the winter wolves.”
“Nuttin’ to be ‘fraid of, M’lady. First storm is usually light.” The crimson-cloak reached for her. She smiled, batting her eyes, and allowed him to take her gloved hand to kiss the back of it. Her giggles would make even the daintiest of women groan. At least she had thought to dig some gloves out of Elias’ bag. If this Vanguard General were guarded with crystillium, it would be too much of a risk to let him touch her after what happened at Ivan’s. Though she wasn’t a mage, she still had much to fear from their vile ranks discovering who she was. Then there was the thought of Wren trying to ride to Firnlan with a statue of Siobhan weighing down the horses if they managed to make it through before the effects kicked in.
Neither prospect was appealing.
“It is such an honor to be protected by such fine gentlemen such as yourself.” Siobhan had to fight the urge to gag at her words. “Is it true you’re on a manhunt? Perhaps it’s a good thing my brother and I are getting out when we can! I’d hate to think of men with such little disregard for the Vanguard to be wandering this city I call home!”
“We’ll ‘ave em by nightfall. Don’t ya worry, M’lady. By the time ya return the scoundrels will ‘ave their ‘eads under our blade.” The crimson-cloak turned and shouted, “Open the gates, two coming through.”
Siobhan giggled and waved a hand in front of her face as if she were cooling herself. “Oh thank you. I do hope you catch them soon. May the Goddess bring glory to all the Vanguard.”
“May she watch over ya in yer travels.” The crimson-cloak bowed, keeping his eyes on Siobhan. He didn’t once glance toward Wren, even when their horses started trotting by. It was as if he didn’t exist. Which wasn’t a bad thing given he was the one the crimson-cloaks sought. She turned in her saddle and blew him a kiss before the gates closed behind them.
“You. Are. Scary. The way you can turn on diplomatic suck up is impressive,” Wren said. He didn’t look back. Neither did she.
Wind and mist licked their skin, making Siobhan wish she’d had a heavier cloak over her shoulders. Wren would question why she wasn’t freezing as the temperature continued to drop. It would bring questions she had no intention of answering. She made a mental note to pretend it bothered her. One hand adjusted the flap of her cloak as the other held on the reins. Thunder rolled through the clouds and the scent of rain hung in the air. She gave it a matter of hours before the first drizzle.
“Keep at a slow pace until we’re clear of the city. The scouts can still see us and normal people wouldn’t ride that fast with this wind.”
“I’m not as stupid as you think I am.”
Siobhan chuckled. “I’m starting to think you’re far more than you let on, Wren Lethon.” She glanced to him. “What I’m wondering is why you’re hiding it.”
His lips twitched. “I could say the same about you, mage who isn’t a mage.”
There was no need to respond to him. He was right and she knew it. Both were hiding secrets and it was only a matter of time before those secrets bubbled to the surface. All Siobhan had left to wonder was who would explode first.