NOW FOR A SNEAK-PEEK OF...
“Three iron coins says the scrawny kid eats dirt!”
Stasha just made out the shouted bet above the icy rain that pelted her, Klaus, and the other orphans streaming into the fighting pit hidden deep in the Wryrors Forest.
Her stomach churned. A year ago, almost to the day, she’d sworn never to step into another fighting pit. But here she was, about to bet her last few coins on the most important fight of her life.
If she won…freedom for her and Klaus.
But if she lost—
That wasn’t an option.
She tossed her wet golden-blonde braid over her shoulder and stood taller in her soaking gray tunic, threadbare gray leggings, and worn-through boots. No one could see how much coming here today cost her—and not just in coin.
The crowd lurched forward, carrying her and Klaus through the rickety wooden archway into the pit. Klaus grunted against the surge of bodies pressing into him. His questioning eyes bored into her. “Stasha, why are we here?”
She quickly looked away. Focus. Focus on what I have to do.
A wet, misshapen hat perched on a wobbly table in the middle of the muddy walkway. She dropped two of her four precious irons into the hat to buy her and Klaus entry into the pit. They tinkled against the other irons already tossed in by the crowd.
A big hand reeking of wet sheep grabbed her arm. She grimaced. Only one person around here smelt that bad. Feral Fox, the grizzled fighter who ran the pit. Tall, rangy, and dressed in a filthy sheepskin jacket and loose-fitting burlap trousers, Feral Fox shot her an almost toothless smile. “Been a long time, Stasha,” he yelled above the cheering, laughter, and banter coming from the pit. “Glad to see you back.” He clapped Klaus on his skinny shoulder. “You too, lad.”
“Good to know I was missed.” She dropped into a flamboyant bow, letting her fingers almost touch the churned-up mud.
As soon as she straightened, Feral Fox said, “Always, Stasha. We miss Tarik too. But no matter what the fae did in Teagarten, this is still your home.” He waved vaguely at the crowd. “And we are still your people.”
Feral Fox didn’t know how wrong he was. Thanks to the murdering fae, Klaus was the only person left in the world whom she called family.
“I’ve come to win a whole lot of coin off my people,” she yelled back, keeping her voice light. No need for him to know her true intentions tonight.
“Still fancy the underdog?”
She threw her head back and laughed. “What a silly question.”
Feral Fox chuckled. “Then you’re in luck.” He dragged her and Klaus closer and whispered, “I’ll keep the betting open long enough for you to have a really good look at him in action.” A final smile and Feral Fox moved on through the crowd.
Typical of Feral Fox to offer her a welcome-back gift. His kindness made her chest burn. She swallowed hard and squared her shoulders. She had to remember why she was here.
She had no idea what Feral Fox's real name was; no one did, but like her and Klaus, he’d once been an orphan who had miraculously outlived the two-faced god and his servants, the Kňazer and the Martka’s best efforts to sling him into an early grave.
Feral Fox now ran the pits to help other orphans survive. The entrance fee would go to the winner of tonight’s fight. If she took his advice and betted wisely, she and Klaus could scoop up all the coins betted at her table. Hopefully, enough coins for them to escape Askavol in the morning.
Feral Fox would walk away with nothing but the satisfaction of knowing he’d taught desperate orphans like her how to survive. Not surprising that Feral Fox was the only person from the pits she’d missed in the last year since Tarik’s murder.
She clawed at her leggings. Don’t think about Tarik. Not now, or she wouldn’t see this through.
She forced a smile and swayed her hips as she elbowed her way through the crowd. Behind her, Klaus stumbled. Her heart dropped, and with it, her fake smile. She lunged for him and yanked him back to his feet before his spindly right leg buckled him into the mud.
It was her fault Klaus was crippled.
Ten years before, she’d snuck away from the wool loom, where she worked, to visit with Klaus in the wood mill. One of the rusting chains heaving the trunk of a pine tree to the saws snapped. The massive log had whipped around so fast, she hadn’t even seen it coming.
He’d darted into its path to push her out of the way. The massive log had struck him and pinned him to the stone floor. In her nightmares, she still saw his mangled leg poking out from under the trunk and heard his screams. For weeks after the accident, she’d pleaded with the two-faced god to heal him. Her prayers had proved just as useless as the Kňazers’ joy-killing piety, and the Martkas’ salt rituals. She would never forgive herself for hurting him. Or the gods for being so powerless—and so uncaring.
She conjured her elusive grin. “Careful, you clumsy brute.”
Klaus shot her an uncertain look. “You didn’t answer my question. What are we doing here?”
She shrugged. “An early celebration of my eighteenth birthday.”
She wasn’t ready to tell him the real reason for this visit. If she stayed in Askavol beyond her birthday, the Kňazer and Martka would conscript her into accepting an acolyte’s robes as a servant of the two-faced god. If she refused, she’d be sold as a wife to some stranger, who’d pay the Kňazer a tithe for her hand. Why anyone would want her—or any of the starved orphans in Askavol—as a wife was beyond her. Surely, skin and bones, and, in her case, a bad attitude weren’t qualities men looked for in a wife?
Regardless, neither choice was an option for her. She had to leave Askavol.
If she were to leave Klaus behind to rot, may darkness devour her. Crippled as Klaus was, he was too weak to travel. For months now, she had avoided the impending doom. With her birthday just days away, time had run out. Winning on tonight’s fight was non-negotiable.
To complicate things, no one here could know—or even suspect—her plans. If the Martka and Kňazer discovered they were leaving and that someone here had failed to report it—
She shuddered at the thought of flayed backs and broken fingers.
So much to hide. So much to lose. Just keep smiling. And laughing. Be the old Stasha back in her favorite haunt....
She sauntered to her old betting table. Goul and Ivan were the only boys she recognized out of the crowd milling about.
Her heart sank. Goul had found Tarik’s broken body in Teagarten. Had led her to him. He was the last person she wanted to run into today. She dug deep and gave him a mischievous grin. With luck, it hid the unease she was sure burned in her eyes.
Goul’s pinched face beamed back at her. “Stasha!” he yelled above the clamor. “Long lost, but not forgotten!”
“Hello, Goul,” Klaus muttered, his face a pale shade of green. He’d also been in Teagarten that morning.
Goul barely spared Klaus a look. Her fists clenched. But she wasn’t here to fight. She forced them to relax, then pushed the bravado, both for Klaus and Goul. “I figured it was time to come back and strip you of some of your coin.” She leaned provocatively against the betting table.
Ivan, Goul’s idiot friend, laughed. “Brave words, Stasha. Do you even know who’s fighting?”
“Still working on it.” She looked at the ring to find Feral Fox’s underdog.
Vlad and Matthias stood in fighting stance in the center of it. She knew them both by sight from the orphanage but had never seen them fight.
“Matthias is a giant compared to Vlad,” Klaus whispered. “No wonder Feral Fox called Vlad the underdog.”
Now there was a truth.
“Size doesn’t always count,” she whispered back. Hunger and desperation often drove winning punches. “Do I have to remind you of all my many, many celebrated wins?” She shot him a grin. “The ones when I beat boys much bigger than me.”
Klaus rolled his serious tawny eyes. “Spare me.” He’d never understood the allure of the pits.
She chuckled. A real one this time. “What are the odds?” she asked Goul while twirling the end of her braid. Any coin would be shared between the lucky few who bet on the winner.
Goul shrugged. “Matthias is bigger. Heavier. But neither of them have fought before. So toss in your coin, and let’s see who wins.”
She looked back at Matthias and Vlad circling each other, waiting for Feral Fox’s signal to fight.
Klaus was right. Anyone with half a brain would bet on Matthias. Only someone with their entire brain intact and functioning would bet on Vlad. She was just such a girl.
“Get those bets in,” Feral Fox yelled from a splintering, ramshackle dais overlooking the pit.
“Matthias to win.” Idiot Ivan slammed his coins onto the scarred wooden table, proving that he did indeed have half a brain. No surprise there.
The rattle of coins beneath his pounding fist set her blood pounding. A few more of those and…
Four of Ivan’s equally stupid friends tossed their coins onto the pile in agreement. Her lips twitched. Twelve irons would buy food for ten days if she and Klaus were frugal.
“Fighters!” Feral Fox yelled. “On my signal. One. Two. Three.” A piercing whistle cut across the din.
Matthias slammed his knee into Vlad’s stomach. Vlad doubled over, coughing through gritted teeth. He tried to retreat but the low wooden fence circling the ring stopped him. Someone leaned over and shoved Vlad back toward Matthias. Vlad stumbled and nearly fell into the slick mud. It wouldn’t have made a difference. He was already covered with the stuff.
Stasha frowned. Perhaps her brain had failed her too, and this wasn’t the fight she should risk her precious coin on. Yet, Feral Fox was rarely wrong about the orphans who fought in his pit. And, true to his word, he hadn’t yet called an end to the betting.
She shoved her way to the wooden fence and watched Vlad for any sign of hidden strength that could change the game.
Vlad swung a fist at Matthias, who caught it and flung it back. Matthias followed it up by crunching his elbow into Vlad’s nose. Blood splattered on both of their filthy tunics. She snorted sourly. Feral Fox had misread this one. Vlad was a hopeless case. She was even worse. A year ago, she would not have assessed a fight so badly. She started to turn away, then stopped, hooked by a flash in Vlad’s eyes.
Fury raged behind Vlad’s tears.
She knew that look. She’d burned with that same fire while throwing punches in the pits. Lips tilted in a triumphant smile, she swung back to the betting table. “A week’s wages say the little thing puts Matthias on his ass.” She slammed her two iron coins down. They left new scratches on the scuffed pine.
“What?” Klaus gasped. “Are you insane? Stasha, take it back.” His outrage wasn’t misplaced. Vlad was getting a royal ass-kicking from Matthias.
Heart pounding as hard as one of the Martkas’ beatings, she glanced at Feral Fox. He nodded at her and smiled.
Feral Fox had never failed her before. “Just trust me,” she hissed under her breath to Klaus.
She turned away to watch the fight. Two more boys calling Matthias’s name tossed coins onto the table. How long could Feral Fox keep the betting open?
Klaus grabbed her elbow and pulled her closer, leaning all his weight on his able leg. “Are you insane? We’re about to lose all the coin we own on a kid who’d have better odds facing a fae.” He grimaced at the word and clutched the hilt of the schorl blade strapped to his waist, the only weapon known to ward off fae.
She yanked away, grinning like a wildcat to soothe his fear. “Just you wait, my friend. That kid will pull through.”
Matthias’s roar spun her back to the pit. He delivered a crushing kick to Vlad’s stomach. The smaller boy gagged, spitting blood. And perhaps a tooth from an earlier punch.
“Your money’s mine now, Stasha.” Ivan loped over to her. Instead of looking at the fight, his eyes roved up her long, mud-speckled legs and stopped at her chest. He didn’t meet her hard stare. What he found to interest him, she didn’t know. There wasn’t much of her to ogle at, being barely more than skin and bones. “Maybe next time we’ll make the bet a little more interesting,” Ivan purred.
She wanted to gag. Instead, she twirled her braid while pillaging his lanky body the same way he had hers. Only instead of leering with lust-hazed eyes, she merely smirked. “I would take you up on that, Ivan, but that would imply there’s something interesting about you.” She slid her gaze, hopefully sultry and sly, to the irons on the table. Enough for her and Klaus to eat for two weeks. And still no closing-bet whistle from Feral Fox. She grinned. “And I do believe that the swell of my pockets after this fight will be a lot larger than anything you could possibly offer me.”
Ivan’s buddies roared with laughter.
“There’s the inappropriate comment I was expecting,” Klaus murmured, lips twitching while his brow scrunched into a frown. How anyone could look concerned and relieved at the same time, she didn’t know, but Klaus always pulled it off with ease.
A sneer replaced Ivan’s grin, and he finally met her stare. “I’ll remember you said that when your pockets are empty later and you’re without food. A nice snack for traveling fae soldiers. Just like your boyfriend, Tarik.”
A breath hissed through Klaus’s teeth, the only sound in the unnerving silence at her table.
A haze of heat settled over Stasha’s head. Red clouded her vision. “That’s it! You don’t walk out of here tonight.” Fist raised, she charged at Ivan.
“Stasha, no.” Klaus grabbed her balled hand before it rammed into Ivan’s stomach. “We all know that Ivan is about as sharp as a marble,” he hummed calmly and so softly only she would hear. “Don’t let the moron rile you.”
Stasha gaped. “Did you not hear what he—”
“I heard.” Klaus didn’t relinquish his grip on her fist. “He’s a real prick. No question about it. But don’t give in to him.”
Klaus was right. Too much was riding on the fight in the pit to tangle with Ivan. She glowered and spat a curse at Ivan but dropped her fists to her sides.
Goul punched Ivan in the kidney hard enough for Ivan to flinch and squeal like a four-year-old. “That was sick. Even for you.”
Ivan flushed pink and jerked a thumb toward the ring. “That tiny thing isn’t walking out of here in one piece. Say goodbye to your bet, Stasha.”
“You think I’m as stupid as you are?” she spat. “Vlad will come through.”
“I’ll take that bet too.” A voice rumbled across the pit like thunder before a storm. Low, thrilling, and intimidating, it made every hair on her body stand at attention.
She turned to the speaker. Tall, powerfully built, he had inky-black hair that tumbled around an intense, handsome face, dominated by shockingly blue eyes framed by long ebony lashes. She’d never seen him before—not in the pits, or in any of the nearby villages. She would have remembered him if she had. No one in the pits looked that well-groomed. Or fed.
“Two coins say Vlad wins.” The stranger tossed two silver coins on the table.
“All betting is now closed.”
She barely heard Feral Fox and certainly couldn’t keep her jaw from dropping. Two silver coins. The boys at the table gaped. Goul gulped, and Ivan swore. If Vlad pulled himself together and won, she and Blue Eyes would share that pool.
More money than she’d ever seen in her life, let alone dreamed of having. What could possibly have prompted Blue Eyes to wager so much? When Vlad won and she and Blue Eyes shared the bet, he would be out of pocket. More fool him.
One silver coin would get her and Klaus safely to Ruepa, the capital of the Kingdom of Atria, her homeland.
Now, two silver coins would set them up properly in the city. Lost in the crowd, the Kňazer and the Martka would never find them. They’d finally be safe. With her fighting skills and savvy, and Klaus’s gentle wisdom, they could build a new life for themselves.
But first Vlad had to win—and she had to wheedle that second coin from Blue Eyes without being impaled on the fancy sword hanging at his side.
Hands shoved lazily into the pockets of black trousers trimmed with gold thread that matched his tunic and jacket, Blue Eyes ignored them all and watched the fight. His drenched clothes hugged rippling muscles. Expensive clothes that poorly concealed a fighter’s body.
She pulled her attention away from him, back to the fight.
Arms wide, exuding confidence, Matthias skipped from foot to foot. He had a lot to be cocky about. Blood poured from Vlad’s nose and mouth. It mingled with the mud coating his face and clothes. Still, he circled Matthias with a predatory gleam in his fiery eyes.
Was Vlad playing the crowd? Hoping to build a reputation for himself as the kid who came from nowhere to win?
It’s what she would have done. While she applauded his motives, she still tapped her icy fingers impatiently against her leg.
Come on, Vlad. Just flatten him. You know you want to.
Vlad struck a fist straight into Matthias’s unprotected stomach. Matthias’s roar turned to a yelp, and he buckled. Vlad skipped around and planted his boot heel square into Matthias’s groin. Matthias howled and hit the mud with his knees. His hands clutched his goodies.
A wild laugh burst from her lips.
Vlad jumped away and landed one last kick on Matthias’s back. Matthias toppled and landed face-first into the mud.
She leaped over to Klaus and hugged him hard. “We did it! He won!”
Klaus hugged her back. “Still not exactly sure what we did, but you’re happy, so that makes me happy.”
“Silly brute.” She pulled away from him to enjoy her victory.
The crowd had gone wild. Hands slammed on thighs, and fists pummeled the wooden fence as everyone chanted, “Vlad, Vlad, Vlad!”
Vlad burst into hysterical laughter. He wiped his ruined nose and blinked at his adoring audience. Vlad, the scrawny, dirty kid who’d whipped Matthias’s butt, would walk away with a title and a pouch filled with coin. If he were smart, he’d eat for a month from tonight’s fight.
She had her own winnings to collect. Winnings that offered a brand-new life she could almost taste. With all the bets on the table forfeited, all she had to worry about was the blue-eyed stranger—and his two fabulous silver coins.
The rules said that she split the winnings down the middle with him.
The rules be tossed! She was leaving Askavol, so it no longer mattered what she did as long as she and Klaus escaped.
Her gaze ran up the stranger with the inky-colored hair, crushing blue eyes, and fancy clothing. Just his silver ring with its fancy sigil could have fed her and Klaus indefinitely. He’d likely never been hungry in his life. He could afford to sponsor her and Klaus’s escape. And then some.
She tossed her braid over her shoulder and sauntered back to the betting table. Pointedly ignoring Blue Eyes, she fluttered her thick lashes at Ivan. “Look at how fat my pockets are about to become.” She placed her hands on either side of the coins, daring anyone to touch them. “But don’t worry, Ivan. I’ll be thinking of you tonight … while I count my money.”
Ivan glowered. Klaus laughed; a wild and relieved sound, it filled her with joy.
“Not so fast, pit princess.”
Her gut wrenched.
Hands still in his pockets, the stranger watched her through piercing eyes. The rest of his brutally sculpted face was equally as challenging. “Half of this money is mine.”
Klaus stilled. His hands clamped on her arm.
Uh … of course. She needed a plan.
It helped that she had the upper hand here. Yes, Blue Eyes was undoubtedly bigger than her. And his well-fed body, with its taut, lean muscles showing through his stupidly expensive clothing, was menacing.
Not to mention the black ink that swirled on the sun-kissed skin beneath his sleeves and collar. His power to intimidate showed in Klaus trembling behind her, and Ivan’s circle of friends all backing off to watch the encounter from a safe distance.
But he also wasn’t from these parts; that much was obvious. Maybe not even from the Kingdom of Atria. Blue Eyes knew nothing about her.
Also, he was farther away from the table, and thus at a less advantageous angle. She had a clear route to the exit.
And she needed that money more than he possibly could. None of the people here would betray her if she stole a coin from him. That wasn’t how the pits worked. They may have fought and wagered against each other like ravening fae, but when it came to them versus the spoiled rich, they had each other’s back.
And if it came down to it, she had her schorl knife strapped to her belt.
The only thing that could slow them down was Klaus’s bad leg. She’d have to carry him. If he caught them.…
How could she refuse such an opportunity?
Time to go for broke.
She dug her boots into the mud to stop her knees from shaking and forced a smug smile. “Of course it is, my lord. Let’s divide it, shall we?” She lowered her stance—a predator on the prowl—and picked up a shining silver coin. Now, like a traveling magician, she ran it from finger to finger. “One silver coin.” At least her hands weren’t shaking.
Well, not too badly.
Holding the coin high so Blue Eyes couldn’t mistake it, she snatched up the second coin and slid it into her tunic. The cold metal stung as it scraped against her warm amber pendant hidden under her clothes. “Two silver coins.”
Ivan and all his buddies’ eyes followed the coin down her cleavage.
Blue Eyes didn’t.
She held her breath and flipped the second coin into the air. As it sailed up, all eyes on it, she swiped her hand across the tabletop. The pile of irons shot off the table and landed in the mud—her gift to Blue Eyes.
A thrill ran up her spine as his eyes met hers just as the second silver coin landed on her open palm. This heist was going to work. Laughing against her pounding heart, she flipped the table into the mud as well.
Blue Eyes stumbled back to avoid the spray.
She had about five seconds to make her getaway. “Don’t argue,” she yelled at Klaus as she dragged him across her shoulder.
“Really, Stasha?” Klaus protested, but he still clung to her like a tick on a dog.
She thrust through the crowd, shoving and pushing until they burst through the wooden archway into the ancient pine forest surrounding the pit. She didn’t stop to check if Blue Eyes followed. Under her weight and Klaus’s, her breath rasped, and her chest ached. She slithered across ankle-deep wet pine needles. The two silver coins jingled as she jumped ditches of half-frozen muddy water and mossy fallen branches sprinkled with frost.
If Blue Eyes caught her and reported her to the Kňazer, it would be a week of solitary confinement in lockup, at least. That punishment would be followed by a fate that would make lockup seem as sweet as honey cake.
He would have to catch her first.
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