Dalya tore another shovelful of dirt from the grave, tossing it aside with a shaky grip. Her arms ached. Splintering pain needled through her shins and ankles. Her eyes were swollen and heavy, her body weak and frail under an iron cloak of exhaustion. The late afternoon sun had taken reprieve behind dark clouds, and the woods grew colder around her.

Istanten patrolled the perimeter, teeth chattering, eyelids fluttering against the icy autumn breeze. For hours he eyed the brush for any sound or movement, stalking the tree line with his arms tucked cozily into his tunic.

The children shared no words until nightfall, when Istanten's shoe caught hold of a root. The boy spilled forward, face scraping the dead leaves and pebbles of the forest floor. Untangling his arms from the inside of his shirt, Istanten scrambled to his feet. Smudges of dirt covered the bags under his eyes, but the moonlight showed agonizing fatigue in the deadness of his pupils, the downward slant of his posture. From the depths of her grandfather's grave, Dalya smiled and leveled a trembling hand toward her companion. Istanten staggered toward her, seized her by the wrist, and hauled her from the hole.

Dalya stabbed the pointed shovel into the unturned earth at the edge of the grave. She embraced Istanten and kissed the boy's dirty cheek. "I owe you everything for helping me," she said, sagging wearily against him. "So go home. Get some sleep."

Istanten pulled away, jabbed a thumb against his throat, and growled sourly.

"It's fine," she reassured him. "We're done here. It's deep enough." She moved to the tree line and sat down, drawing her knees close in defense against the cold.

The boy measured her for several seconds, uttering a low grumble that was almost lost under the wind.

"I'm going to sit for a few minutes," she said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. "You go on. I'll see you tomorrow."

Istanten shrugged and turned, plodding off into the darkness behind heavy, tired footsteps.

For a long while it was just Dalya, alone with the breeze and the soft rustle of the foliage. She was too uncomfortable to doze, but nevertheless, she rested her eyes and set her head back against the craggy bark of an oak tree, relaxing her limbs and unconsciously rubbing the gooseflesh from her arms. She counted the passing seconds to help steady her mind, delving into the thousands, before the voice interrupted her thoughts.

"It's too damn cold to sleep out here."

Dalya's eyes fired open. She popped to her feet and spun, vision flickering toward every tree, every branch, every shifting shadow. She saw the smile first, immaculately uniform teeth set against the blackness of the woods. As he approached her, he became an outline, then a silhouette, and finally—a mere arm's length away—a thick figure, armored in metal as dark as the sky.

Harringer's friend from the orchard.

"What are you doing here?" she spat, knees trembling beneath her weight.

The soldier stepped past her, armor clinking softly as he moved. He stood silently at the edge of the grave, hands on his hips, and scanned the clearing. After a moment, he took a seat and pushed a windy sigh from his lungs. "Who was he? The old fellow."

Dalya hesitated, frozen, staring wide-eyed at the man's back.

He looked over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. "The body Stretvanger seeks. Who was he?"

Their gazes intertwined, and they shared a handful of tense heartbeats before Dalya said, "He was my grandpa."

"He was more than that, surely, for all the time we've wasted trying to find him." A stiff gust of wind blustered through the clearing. The canopy of leaves shifted above them. "He was a farmer, I hear."

"A florist," Dalya corrected. "He was the town florist."

The soldier held her in his gaze, studying her in the darkness. "And what else?"

"A traveler."


Dalya nodded. "And a carpenter," she said, the onset of tears straining her voice. "He was a storyteller, and a laugher, and an animal lover, and an early riser, and—"

The words caught. Dalya took a deep, shaky breath. "And he was the only parent I've ever known. He was a good man, and he didn't deserve this."

The soldier in dark armor turned away from her again, his legs dangling over the side of the grave. "A good man," he muttered. He spoke toward the hole in the ground, almost to himself. "You'll find, child, as you age, that our realm is not shaded in black and white. It's an ugly, confusing, pallid gray. From where you're standing, it's a place where kind florists are hanged without reason, and criminals wear royal frocks and issue orders to lesser men."

He stood and faced her, his heels at the edge of the grave. "But reality has no time for good and evil," he continued. "It's not invested in your perspective or mine. Reality is concerned only with truth, and your grandfather—the traveling, laughing storyteller—died with a heart full of secrets. And Stretvanger has come to make sure they stay secret."

"By hanging him in the orchard and cutting symbols into his body?"

"You'll learn not to question the tall man in the robes. Those symbols are a net, a safety, keeping your grandfather's dark mysteries in the shadows. Where they belong."

Dalya swallowed back the lump in her throat. "How did you find me here?"

"I followed you. After you left the cottage. Hoped you'd lead me to the body."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you," she said.

The man flashed his brilliant smile. "I'm sorry too," he said. "Because you know the location of your grandfather's corpse, and that means I have to drag you back to Stretvanger. And take my word, that's not good for anyone involved." He reached for her. "Now come. We're out of time."

Dalya's chest tensed. Her exhaustion drowned in an ocean of frightened ferocity, and in one fluid arc, she drew the ornate shovel from the dirt and swung. The pointed edge scraped across the man's face, rending his flesh and tearing skin from bone. The sound of ivory on skull reverberated through the clearing in a sharp shockwave; the soldier spun sideways and collapsed into the empty grave.



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