Nesta rolled her eyes. Elain was shooting glances between us and the market ahead—to the villagers now watching, too. Time to go.
Nesta opened her mouth again, but I stepped between them and ran an eye along the girl’s pale blue robes, the silver jewelry on her, the utter cleanness of her skin. Not a mark or smudge to be found. “You’re fighting an uphill battle,” I said to her.
“A worthy cause.” The girl beamed beatifically.
I gave Nesta a gentle push to get her walking and said to the acolyte, “No, it’s not.”
I could feel the acolytes’ attention still fixed on us as we strode into the busy market square, but I didn’t look back. They’d be gone soon enough, off to preach in another town. We’d have to take the long way out of the village to avoid them. When we were far enough away, I glanced over a shoulder at my sisters. Elain’s face remained set in a wince, but Nesta’s eyes were stormy, her lips thin. I wondered if she’d stomp back to the girl and pick a fight.
Not my problem—not right now. “I’ll meet you here in an hour,” I said, and didn’t give them time to cling to me before slipping into the crowded square.
It took me ten minutes to contemplate my three options. There were my usual buyers: the weathered cobbler and the sharp-eyed clothier who came to our market from a nearby town. And then the unknown: a mountain of a woman sitting on the lip of our broken square fountain, without any cart or stall, but looking like she was holding court nonetheless. The scars and weapons on her marked her easily enough. A mercenary.
I could feel the eyes of the cobbler and clothier on me, sense their feigned disinterest as they took in the satchel I bore. Fine—it would be that sort of day, then.
I approached the mercenary, whose thick, dark hair was shorn to her chin. Her tan face seemed hewn of granite, and her black eyes narrowed slightly at the sight of me. Such interesting eyes—not just one shade of black, but … many, with hints of brown that glimmered amongst the shadows. I pushed against that useless part of my mind, the instincts that had me thinking about color and light and shape, and kept my shoulders back as she assessed me as a potential threat or employer. The weapons on her—gleaming and wicked—were enough to make me swallow. And stop a good two feet away.
“I don’t barter goods for my services,” she said, her voice clipped with an accent I’d never heard before. “I only accept coin.”
A few passing villagers tried their best not to look too interested in our conversation, especially as I said, “Then you’ll be out of luck in this sort of place.”
She was massive even sitting down. “What is your business with me, girl?”
She could have been aged anywhere from twenty-five to thirty, but I supposed I looked like a girl to her in my layers, gangly from hunger. “I have a wolf pelt and a doe hide for sale. I thought you might be interested in purchasing them.”
“You steal them?”
“No.” I held her stare. “I hunted them myself. I swear it.”
She ran those dark eyes down me again. “How.” Not a question—a command. Perhaps someone who had encountered others who did not see vows as sacred, words as bonds. And had punished them accordingly.
So I told her how I’d brought them down, and when I finished, she flicked a hand toward my satchel. “Let me see.” I pulled out both carefully folded hides. “You weren’t lying about the wolf’s size,” she murmured. “Doesn’t seem like a faerie, though.” She examined them with an expert eye, running her hands over and under. She named her price.
I blinked—but stifled the urge to blink a second time. She was overpaying—by a lot.
She looked beyond me—past me. “I’m assuming those two girls watching from across the square are your sisters. You all have that brassy hair—and that hungry look about you.” Indeed, they were still trying their best to eavesdrop without being spotted.
“I don’t need your pity.”
“No, but you need my money, and the other traders have been cheap all morning. Everyone’s too distracted by those calf-eyed zealots bleating across the square.” She jerked her chin toward the Children of the Blessed, still ringing their silver bells and jumping into the path of anyone who tried to walk by.
The mercenary was smiling faintly when I turned back to her. “Up to you, girl.”
She shrugged. “Someone once did the same for me and mine, at a time when we needed it most. Figure it’s time to repay what’s due.”
I watched her again, weighing. “My father has some wood carvings that I could give you as well—to make it more fair.”
“I travel light and have no need for them. These, however”—she patted the pelts in her hands—“save me the trouble of killing them myself.”
I nodded, my cheeks heating as she reached for the coin purse inside her heavy coat. It was full—and weighed down with at least silver, possibly gold, if the clinking was any indication. Mercenaries tended to be well paid in our territory.
Our territory was too small and poor to maintain a standing army to monitor the wall with Prythian, and we villagers could rely only on the strength of the Treaty forged five hundred years ago. But the upper class could afford hired swords, like this woman, to guard their lands bordering the immortal realm. It was an illusion of comfort, just as the markings on our threshold were. We all knew, deep down, that there was nothing to be done against the faeries. We’d all been told it, regardless of class or rank, from the moment we were born, the warnings sung to us while we rocked in cradles, the rhymes chanted in schoolyards. One of the High Fae could turn your bones to dust from a hundred yards away. Not that my sisters or I had ever seen it.
But we still tried to believe that something—anything—might work against them, if we ever were to encounter them. There were two stalls in the market catering to those fears, offering up charms and baubles and incantations and bits of iron. I couldn’t afford them—and if they did indeed work, they would buy us only a few minutes to prepare ourselves. Running was futile; so was fighting. But Nesta and Elain still wore their iron bracelets whenever they left the cottage. Even Isaac had an iron cuff around one wrist, always tucked under his sleeve. He’d once offered to buy me one, but I’d refused. It had felt too personal, too much like payment, too … permanent a reminder of whatever we were and weren’t to each other.