As the pyre burned down, collapsing in on itself as the stack of wood was consumed, charred bone mingling with ash, Worm poked through the Soul Thief’s clothes. He scowled as he felt over the fabric with his one hand, pausing here and there only to move on. “Burn ’em,” he finally said with a sigh of resignation. Elena threw them on the pyre. They flared up like ordinary clothes, blackened and curled into ash, and were gone.
I watched the clothes burn as I stood rooted to my spot in the tall grass, blinking occasionally but otherwise still as the others moved around me. A cinder from that fire had somehow lodged deep in my chest, a tiny spark of anger looking for fuel. Half my will, the well-trained, disciplined half, rushed to extinguish it. But there was a part of me, a part I had not known before today, that wanted to feed the fire, to create a righteous inferno that would consume those responsible for the horror I had witnessed that morning, even as it destroyed me in the process. Perhaps the man who had awakened in my skin that morning was already gone.
If the Wanderers had a God, it was the God of Gray, and it denied the existence of black or white. Gray is not an absolute, and when two people see gray they see different shades. “There is no such thing as evil,” my dear mother had told me more than once. My father disagreed, saying to her, “The only thing blacker than your heart is your son’s.” I had my own ideas about evil in our family, but I was careful never to speak them out loud. If there is such a thing as evil, then either my father was right or I was. Or, perhaps, we both were.
I said earlier that I was finished talking about my father; I thought we could lay his drunken bones to rest. But you should know: He hurt us. His big drunken fists bruised us and blackened our eyes and broke our bones. His angry words cut through who we were, reduced us to fearful dolls. Mother loved him and she kept him alive as long as she could, but the family protects promising children, and the family protected me. I didn’t see him die, but when he didn’t come home that wintry night I knew he was dead. So did mother. No one has spoken his name since.
Mother loved him. She risked her own life to stay with him. She risked my life as well. I’m not sure what love is, but it’s the closest thing to evil I know.
The closest thing, at least, until that morning. When the Soul Thieves cooked a fortress along with all its occupants, it was no greater an atrocity than many other celebrated victories. When the Soul Thieves tried to kill me, that was simply business — a business I understand well. But the cries of those children… they touched something at the core of who I am. Perhaps I have my father to thank; he would have thought nothing of eating children if it could make him stronger. He was a Soul Thief in his own way, destroying those around him, consuming them with fists and words.
It was Old Robert who finally interrupted my reverie. “You headin’ south?” he asked me. I blinked and looked over at him. The pyre was just a pile of smoldering charcoal now, the smoke only rising a short distance before growing tired and drifting back to the ground, leaving a light haze over the cold grass.
“Yeah.” Finding the King still felt like the right choice. Even if the King himself were worthless, there would be people near him worth talking to. The arrival of the Baroness would certainly be fun to watch. “How about you?”
Old Robert made a face. “Some other direction. You’ll hear about it if you live long enough.” He hesitated and put his hand lightly on my forearm. “There’s others’ll come to help. I’ll see to that. Don’t do nothin’ stupid in the meantime.” I looked at him and he gave me an odd sort of smile; almost one of fondness. “Just remember that being angry takes practice, just like everything else. Don’t do nothin’ stupid until you get the hang of it.” He tipped his head in the direction of Elena. “And look out for her. She’s the one gonna make them pay. Use your anger to make her stronger.”
I nodded slowly and Old Robert added, “And keep the big one around so you don’t kill her with overtraining.”
I nodded and looked over at Bags. “Yeah. She needs his honesty anyway.” Then there was Kat, skilled and angry at the world and a woman to help Elena with woman things. And there was Worm. Elena could not have assembled a better faculty to teach her how to destroy the world. Not for the first time I wondered what her wish actually was. I doubted even she knew.
That night, our last night in that place, it was time to show Worm the map.
We were all outside, in the glow of a low fire, seated in a ring with a gap to the south, the smoke’s favored direction. I stood, pulled the bundle out of my pack and handed it to Worm. He looked up at me with narrowed eyes, his hand hovering, waiting to liberate the treasure, but untrusting. “What is it?” he asked. A question he knew would not be answered.
I just shrugged and stood watching him in silence, careful to not let any emotion show on my face. He accepted the object and laid it in his lap. With his one hand he took his time unwrapping each layer of protection, grunting in pain and displeasure when he reached with the hand no longer there. Slowly he removed the water-resistant sack, then the parchment, making each move slowly, as if suspecting a trap. Once he had removed the map from its protective coverings he inspected the rolled parchment carefully, running his fingers over the ends of the wooden spindle. “Where did you get this?” he asked.
He nodded and slowly unrolled the parchment from the spindle, then folded it open to reveal the map. We all looked at it in silence for a few moments.
“What do those words say?” Elena asked, pointing to a section of the map that was empty to my eyes. Worm squinted at her. “I don’t know.” It looked like he was about to say something else, but he stopped.
“I don’t see anything there,” I said. What I could see didn’t matter, but I wanted to keep the conversation close to what Worm had chosen not to say.
“Those words are not intended to be read by the uninvited,” Worm said.
I nodded and smiled. “You can’t see them either.”
He smiled back. “No.”
“Are you shitting me?” Elena asked.
“Do you see anything here?” Worm asked, pointing to where one of the paths ended at the edge of the map.
Elena scowled extra-hard at the spot, trying to will something into existence. “Fuck,” she finally said. “Just a fuckin’ hole.”
Worm nodded. “The prize is in those holes.”
“How to find the paths from the outside,” I said. “How to reach their city.”
“Yes. With this information the king could lead an army against the Collective.”
I cocked my head and brushed my fingers against the hilt of my hunting knife. I do that when I think about traps. “That army would be slaughtered.”
“I’d like to know how the King’s army came to be in possession of this thing,” I said. “Smells fishy to me.”
“But the king can’t fuckin’ read it,” Elena pointed out.
“True,” I said. “But how much do you want to bet that someone who is near the king can? A Soul Thief claiming to be a rebel against his kind.”
I hadn’t considered present company when I said it, but it did raise a question. Worm stared at me, unblinking. “I am a rebel.” It sounded like he believed it, at least.
“Do you know who the other rebels are? Do you have a secret handshake?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“So if we do find a “rebel wizard” with the king, you will know if this other person is actually a rebel or if this is all an elaborate trap.”
“And can you find out without him seeing you?” Katherine added.
Worm closed his eyes and took a breath. “It could still be a trap, even if the one by the King is a rebel. It could be a trap that he is an unwitting part of.”
“But the fuckers went to Brewers to take it back,” Elena said.
“Probably,” I said, “But maybe not. Somehow it slipped through their fingers once again; perhaps that was their intent. It cost them a crazy woman and an underling, but if we’d lost that fight they’d have been rid of us. A good outcome for them either way. And if we were killed the same godfucked map could conveniently show up somewhere else.”
“Fucked by the bull or banged by the goose,” she said. “So what the fuck do we do?”
I smiled at her idiom. “I think we need to get to the king. We need to know if the wizard at his side is stupid or evil. We need to make sure that wizard doesn’t know that we suspect anything. We need to break open the secrets of this map, and we need to make sure no one knows we’ve done it. Finally, we need to give the king the map, and we need to make sure the king never gets this map.”
Elena made a face as she drove her little finger into her ear to scratch an itch. “Is that all?” She inspected her fingernail.
I shook my head. “All that does is stop the king from losing as quickly.”
“We could just kill him,” Elena said. “Put an end to the puppet show.”
I smiled at her and tousled her dark hair. “Depending on who’s pulling the strings, that might be a good idea.”
She shook her head emphatically. “No. Kill all the sons of scrotums. Clean ’em out. Make Kat the fuckin’ queen. Take the fuckin’ army and Worm’s fuckin’ friends and fuckin’ obliterate the fuckin’ Soul Thieves. You and me and any Wanderers who want to join will go in first and fuck up their defenses.”
I shot a glance at Worm who was looking wide-eyed back at me. He found his voice. “You don’t understand what you’re facing.”
She glared right back at him. “A thousand child slaves? Ten thousand? How many do you think they’ve taken?”
Old Robert opened his mouth slowly and the heat of the debate dissipated as we all turned to hear what he had to say. “Might come to that,” he said, “Kill ’em all, make Kat queen. If you can talk Kat into it, she’d be better than we’ve had in a while. But no need to commit to a particular plan if they all start the same way. Start walking south.” He looked at me. “You know Emma?”
“Of course.” I didn’t like her very much, but she was skilled. Forgery was her speciality, along with every other sort of lie.
“She’ll find you on the road. When you get to the King, you’ll have another one of these.” He gestured to the map. “Without the invisible parts, of course.”