The streets were as crowded as ever—more so, if I judged correctly. I had never seen so many people. And horses. Now that we were mere days from the emperor’s ball, citizens from the Empire’s farthest reaches had arrived, filling the streets with clammer and noise, odors both pleasant and unpleasant, and an inescapable warmth no matter the time of day or night.
In the pocket of the gown I’d donned, I ran my fingers over the scallops of the little pink shell from the shores of Aberly. I was still the same person. Changing my looks had not changed who I was inside. I pulled my thoughts from Aberly, and my identity, and Quinn—who was always there, in the background of my thoughts—and focused on following my nose to a stall that would satiate my hunger.
I stopped at a stall selling an array of spiced dishes, cooked beans and rice and cheese, and requested three servings to take back to the inn, my mouth already anticipating the flavors. As I waited for the vendor to count my change, I let my gaze wander.
My breath hitched as though I’d been punched in the gut.
For a second—really an instant—I swore I saw a shock of dark hair and broad shoulders, a familiar stubbled jawline. And a dappled hind end of a horse. In a blink, he was gone. If I hadn’t been waiting on the vendor, I might have raced down the street.
Quinn. I’d seen Quinn. It was—
Saints, get ahold of yourself, Reina.
I put a hand to my eyes, pressing my fingers into my eyelids until I no longer felt as though I would cry. Quinn was dead. Quinn was dead and no amount of wishing would bring him back.
I returned my hands to my sides, keeping my eyes downcast, and muttering my thanks as I accepted my change, shoved the change into my pocket, and accept the wrapped packages from the vendor.
I spared one last glance down the corridor of the street, hoping to see the man and horse, hoping to verify that it was not who I thought I’d seen. It might help, to know I’d seen someone real and living, not a ghost of my past, but a passing resemblance to someone I’d known and loved. There was no sign man or horse, though. Nor any sign of a ghost who resembled Quinn.
“Who are you?” I croaked, opening my eyes a stitch, waiting for the other voices to return.
The sound of my own voice was almost unrecognizable, even to myself. The screaming had left its mark on my throat, leaving it raw and damaged.
“A friend,” the voice in the darkness answered. “The closest thing to a friend you’ve got at the moment anyway, all the more unfortunate for you, truly.”
I pulled myself to a sitting position, letting my hands fall to my lap. The burning sensation across my skin had calmed. The voice had stopped it somehow.
“Where did they go?” I asked. “How did you stop them?”
There was no sign of the dead children or women who’d hovered over me only moments ago.
“I didn’t stop them. You did. Took a long enough time to get out of your own mind, though. I knew you were hard-headed, but, honestly, I had no idea just how thick that skull of yours really is.”
The darkness began to ease, letting in just enough light so my eyes could focus upon the lone figure standing beside me. The figure wasn’t illuminated, which was already a relief to my sensitive eyes, still haunted by the vision of glowing, dead children.
“Do I…know you?” I squinted at the man beside me, then pushed myself off the ground and stood.
“Getting up, that’s a start. Walk with me, D’Arturio.”
I obeyed even though I wasn’t sure where the two of us could possibly walk in the surrounding gray.
I was silent for long moments, waiting for the man to speak again, waiting to know who he was and why he was here. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t say what exactly. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to throw a fist at him or hug him, though I surprisingly felt the urge to do both.
The man had blond hair, neatly combed back, and a swagger that irked, but he’d been kind enough to scare away the dead and keep me from being attacked, so I could forgive an arrogant swagger, couldn’t I?
“Do I know you?” I repeated.
“You did. When I was alive anyway.”
I inhaled sharply.
“Ingram.” The name fell from my lips even though I didn’t understand the urge to say it.
“Impressive. The mountain hasn’t fried your mind yet. That’s something, I suppose.”
“I’m dead,” I said.
It wasn’t a question.
Ingram outright laughed, stirring irritation in my chest. I did not like being laughed at by this man.
“No,” Ingram said. “You’re not.”
None of this made sense. Ingram was dead. I knew it. I…remembered it.
He’d been crushed by an enormous stone. Crushed after holding the mountain passage open for all of us. Crushed when my body had failed me, and I hadn’t been able to hold it any longer.
“But you’re dead.”
“Observant.” He gave a dry smile.
“So I must be dead, too.”
“Not quite. Think of this as an in-between state.”
“Dead, yes, and thank you for bringing that up yet again. I do so love being reminded of it.”
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