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That was neither unusual nor something that Tanya couldn't easily dispatch. The wrinkle here was that the two young men were dressed in the pale blue coats of the Queen's Corps. And more corpsmen, more than Tanya had realized were on the premises, all twinkling with dangerous hardware and even more dangerous legal authority, were surrounding them.

Tanya might not have particularly liked Gregor, but it wouldn't do to have him escorted from the Snake in chains.

She moved.

Tanya rapped an elbow with the wine bottle and bounced through the subsequently vacated space. "Now that's a sight I like to see," she said, tidily breaking through Gregor's left-hand headlock with the sharp end of the tray, sending the smaller corpsman plummeting to the floor. "One of the strongest specimens the Port Cities has to offer in an exhibition with the esteemed soldiers of the Queen's Corps—easily the finest men in Lode." She put her hand on Gregor's right hand, which was wrapped around a skinny corpsman's collarbone, and pried his fingers away.

She shoved Gregor in the back with her second wine bottle, pushing him toward his brother. The Snake regulars, knowing Gregor's intractability when drunk, closed up behind them, and Tanya turned her attention to the corpsmen.

"Gentlemen," she said, with as much honey in her voice as she could conjure. "Allow me to show my deep appreciation for your patience with our rowdier townsfolk—he's just a crabber and is not equipped with the manners and discipline we of course expect of the Queen's Corps." She pulled out a chair for the first corpsman, still struggling to his feet, and dropped to her knees to retrieve something that had gotten knocked out of the skinnier one's hands in his fall.

It was a box. A glossy, wooden box carved with a single flame. Tanya thought she heard something humming inside and moved to put it to her ear—only to have it snatched away by Skinny.

Still on her knees, Tanya recovered quickly and grinned. "Trinket for a sweetheart, sir? Lucky girl to have a handsome corpsman guarding her treasures so valiantly."

The skinny corpsman was part of the way toward a smile when there was a scream from the bar and Tanya's life as she knew it ended.

After the scream, no one moved fast enough except for Tanya. She knocked over the table, splashing beer all over her clean floor, and pushed past the crowd that had drawn up slowly around the bar—too slowly for Tanya to push past it. No one thought to make her a path and, of course, no one hopped the bar themselves to tend to the old man.

No, no one had moved fast enough, either toward Froud or out of her damn way, and by the time Tanya got to him, he was already dead.


Chapter 2

The wagon carrying Froud's coffin stumbled to a stop outside the Shrine of Herold. Tanya hopped down and surveyed the red-dyed stones of the temple and the badly kept grass of the graveyard beyond. For the first time since Froud's death, she felt tears behind her eyes. She hated to think of gentle Froud in Herold's wild and neglected burial ground. But Froud had loved the boisterous god of revels and squalls, wind and rage.

There was a temple. She could see it, mottled black and red, nestled under a burnt-out nut tree. There were priests, but she knew not to expect a reception—especially as a girl. The priests conducted their burial rites in secret and no women were ever allowed.

Tanya surveyed the scene and, finding nothing useful for her to do, turned to walk back to the Smiling Snake.

She walked briskly down the sandy road, smelling the fish and salt of Griffin's Port more with every step. It was rare that she even noticed the smell. But then, she hadn't left the small, shabby city she called home much in the last ten years. When she was young and first came to live with him, Froud had often wanted to take her down the path that led to the woods—to go to a fair or a market or a festival even—but she had been too frightened. Frightened that she would get lost, that she'd never find her way back. Frightened that Froud would simply leave her under a tree.

The fears didn't last more than a year, but then they no longer mattered. She was too busy to leave. The place wouldn't function without her—she had made sure of that. Fear of being left under a tree was for other, less important, girls.
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