Amadhay wasn’t shaking when she finally made it to the door of Byrd’s Pub, but she was close to it.
Nothing she had dealt with before had been nearly as nerve-wracking as this. She had faced down Ferals three times her size, assassinated high-ranking members of other courts, decimated her competition, even sneaked in and out of Palnoki on several occasions with barely any magic to defend herself and absolutely no way to get backup. But this, this was definitely getting her much more unnerved than any of those previous times. This was walking into enemy territory blind and with a whole lot of animosity against her.
She tried to remind herself that if something went wrong, she was faster. If something went wrong, she could teleport. If something went wrong, she could try again in a different way. That didn’t help her. She was still just barely holding it all together as she touched the heavy door. She stood there, staring at the patterns on the redwood door for a few clicks, working up her confidence, but it was hard coming and even harder to keep. She was about to turn on her heel and leave, when the door opened inward and a smiling, brunet man stood there.
“See? She’s right here,” he called over his shoulder before grabbing her hand and pulling her into the building. She was so taken off-guard that she didn’t think to attack him, which was probably in her best interest. “Amaya, you’ve got to tell Jazz that you aren’t going to be sent back to Hartin. She’s been planning an escape route since you ran out on her earlier.”
Amadhay blinked a few times, not sure what she should say, if anything. The man led her into the main room of the tavern, where a tall redhead (Fire Herald Lazaili Jazz, she mentally recognized as one of Amaya’s closest friends and also the target Arne Riff had assigned her should things get difficult with the girls) was behind the bar, filling another man’s glass. None of the other Heralds were present and, as far as she could tell, neither was Byrd, which was a blessing in itself. In fact, the bar was strangely empty for the time of the day. It was about midday, and considering it was Soulsday, she was honestly surprised that it wasn’t booming with the business of hard laborers wasting away on their off day.
The fire Herald gave Amadhay a once over before grinning wickedly. “So Hynnkel couldn’t get you to wear a dress?” she teased before hopping up to sit on the bar. She swung her legs over so that she could sit on the edge, facing Amadhay and the brunet man.
Amadhay gave a strained laugh, thinking that Amaya would have laughed there. “Not that he didn’t try,” she attempted, hoping that was the right response. When all three people laughed, she assumed she had done well enough.
“Oh, Goddess, tell me he tried to get you into the white one. You look adorable in the white one,” the brunet man drawled, leaning back into the bar. Herald Jazz swatted at him.
“Stop flirting with the innocent one!”
Amadhay raised her eyebrows. The innocent one? She highly doubted that her sister was the innocent one.
“I can’t help it, can I?” the brunet asked the only man yet to speak, “She’s adorable in that white dress. C’mon Jake, you know she is. It makes her look half her age—”
“Which would make her seven, Crow!” Herald Jazz exclaimed. Amadhay was feeling less nervous and more disturbed by the conversation. Why on Resor would a grown man want a girl who looked like she was seven?
“I know, I know,” the brunet, Crow, held his hands up in surrender. He gave her a fangy smile that made everything plainer about him. He was a blood-gorging living vampire. They always had tastes that were just off from being utterly depraved, making them only minimally better than their kin, the dead-vampires. “I just can’t help but think she’s cute when she looks all tiny and innocent.”
“I give you full permission to knock him out,” Herald Jazz offered, looking at Amadhay, who shrugged.
“Nothing I haven’t heard before,” she bluffed, making Herald Jazz hit Crow again.
“Stop trying to corrupt the baby!” she exclaimed, hitting him one more time.
“So how did the urgent meeting go?” the one who hadn’t spoken, Jake, asked, looking directly at Amadhay in a way that made her flinch. He would look at her too closely and see the differences because there were differences. Even if Amadhay actually knew what Amaya looked like nowadays, there would still be differences. Maybe she’d dyed her hair or had new piercings. Maybe she had a scar. Amadhay had a scar, she suddenly remembered, right below her lip. She had it and it was almost impossible that Amaya had it too. What if they noticed that?
“Mee-May?” Herald Jazz asked after a few moments of silence on Amadhay’s part. She waved her hand in front of the younger girls face, making Amadhay flinch back.
Concern jumped onto all three faces and suddenly all of the attention was on her. There was no longer the light-hearted feel, no joking or laughter, just concern. “Are you alright?” Herald Jazz demanded. “Because I swear to Goddess, Escort and all the little Splinters that if they hurt you, I will kill them.”
Amadhay felt like her heart was beating fast and hard enough that she might pass out. “No,” she said softly, and it sounded unconvincing even to her own ears. “No,” she tried again, sounding a little bit surer this time. “I’m fine. I’m just…I’m just tired. I…it’s been a long day and I just wanna take a catnap.”
The men chuckled lightly at her cat joke, but Herald Jazz watched her critically for a few more clicks before frowning. “Are you sure? You don’t look okay.”
“I just need to sleep,” Amadhay repeated. “Do you think Byrd would mind if I took a nap here?” she tried.
Herald Jazz gave her one last, long look before rolling her eyes. “Byrd can go munch on donkey balls,” she stated, making Amadhay give her a look of surprise.
Herald Jazz grinned at her before hopping off of the bar and gesturing for the two men to take over for her. She paused for a moment when she stood before Amadhay, standing over a foot taller. Looking down first at her own feet, then at Amadhay’s, she gave a shrug and let go of whatever thought had come to her. She took Amadhay’s hand. “C’mere, I’ll take you to a free room.”
Amadhay let the much taller girl lead her through the tavern and upstairs to the lodging part of the inn. As they ascended the steps, Herald Jazz put her hand on Amadhay’s shoulder. The younger girl was so tense that she was sure the Herald could feel her muscles coiling. She tried to relax them, but couldn’t. Her second thought when Herald Jazz squeezed her shoulder was that she had been found out. Amaya’s arms and shoulders were much more muscled than her own were, her sister being an archer while she was a magic practitioner making all the difference in their muscle build up.
Herald Jazz made a soft sound, stopping them at the top of the landing, and leaned down enough to look into Amadhay’s face, her eyes searching. Amadhay took a deep breath and clenched her fist, ready to slam it into the redhead’s stomach.
“Mee-May,” she said softly, glancing back down the stairs before looking back to Amadhay, “Are you sure everything’s fine? You’re tensed to Waters and so quiet that I don’t even feel like it’s you. Did Ass Riffly-pants do something to you?” The sheer absurdity of the name the Herald used for Arne Riff made Amadhay giggle against her will, which seemed to be the right move when Herald Jazz gave her a relieved smile.
“I’m fine, I told you,” Amadhay insisted, taking Herald Jazz’s hand from her shoulder and squeezing it lightly the way she vaguely remembered new-Amaya doing.
Herald Jazz didn’t look completely certain yet. She squeezed Amadhay’s hand back before continuing to lead her to a room. “If you’re sure…” she tried, but Amadhay gave her a mute smile and nodded. “You only come here after dealing with your family when you need comfort. So I’m here for you if you want to talk.”
She hadn’t known that. If Amaya only comes here for comfort, she wondered, then where would she normally have gone? Essebelle had made it sound as if Amaya and all of her friends were regulars at this establishment. That would have been the only sense behind Palnoki’s Wrangler and Skeletal Smile coming to this place. Unless…
She glanced at Herald Jazz, wondering how hard it would be to pretend to be Amaya enough to get a little more information. “I just couldn’t go home,” she attempted, watching the redhead closely.
Herald Jazz paused at the door of room 16, turning back to look at Amaya. “Is that why Hynnkel and Croy-li aren’t with you? Did something happen between the three of you?”
Amadhay gave a slight shrug. So she lives with Croy-li and Hynnkel? “Sort of,” she muttered, looking down at her feet. The purple boots were obnoxious against the denim of her jeans, but, she noticed, Herald Jazz was wearing similar boots with a much higher heel and similar, though clingier, jeans. She wondered for a moment if Amaya and Herald Jazz often dressed similarly enough that the redhead wouldn’t have seen it noteworthy enough to comment upon.
“You know you can stay here as long as you want. I can’t promise Blu or Brave’ll keep Croy-li out if you don’t want to talk to him, but we’ll all keep Hynnkel out. Him I can promise we’ll throw out on his ass until you want to be bothered.” Her words were spoken in a way that made Amadhay wonder if there was a little unrest in the group. Croy-li, while not a Herald, was one of the girls despite his gender. It wasn’t surprising that in-fighting would be something some of them would try to avoid. But the seeming dislike of Hynnkel was what interested her. There had been a type of malevolent glee in the girl’s voice at the idea of tossing Hynnkel out, which made it obvious there was no lost love between Amaya’s friends and him. Could she exploit that?
She smiled at Herald Jazz and gave her a quick hug. If new-Amaya was anything like old-Amaya, she would have kept close and made it a long hug, but Amadhay couldn’t convince herself to do that. She wasn’t quite sure how much vampire was in Herald Jazz’s valev and how much elf, and despite the rumors that being a Herald dulled senses, she couldn’t chance the Herald being able to sniff out the slight difference in her and Amaya’s natural smells. That would lead to real problems.
The Herald probably just took it to mean that she was tired or otherwise emotionally weary, since she gave Amadhay a fond smile and nodded at her. “Come down for dinner though, kay? The Team’s gonna come over—besides Croy-li if you want—and hear how everything went.” Amadhay had nodded and almost had the door open when Herald Jazz stopped her, “Oh crap! I almost forgot, you are good, right? They’re not making you go back to the homestead? We don’t have to make a big plan to break you out and move Over the Water or something, do we?”
She sounded so hysterical that Amadhay had to laugh. All that worry over one little call with a tiny ultimatum? These people were comical. If she had had a call like that, Benjy and Monkey would have expected her to just deal with it, not questioned her to Water about it. New-Amaya must have been pretty incapable that her friends were so worried that she would have flubbed something up enough for Arne Riff to force her to rejoin the homestead with no previous warnings.
Unless there had been warnings. Had there? She wouldn’t know. She made it her business not to know the business of either of her sisters. It was better that way.
She waved a hand at Herald Jazz. “Don’t worry. Riffly-butt isn’t forcing me to move,” she responded, trying out a new name for her uncle.
Herald Jazz laughed. “Riffly-butt? I like that one. That’s my new one,” she called as she headed back downstairs without another word about the problem.
With that, she was alone. Checking over her shoulder to be sure that no one was watching, she went into the room and sat on the bed for a few clacks, just biding her time. She knew, because it was what she would do, that Herald Jazz was waiting downstairs, listening for any signs that she (or rather Amaya) needed anything or was having any problems. So she just had to wait the Herald out long enough for her not to notice when Amadhay went to go and get to Palnoki’s Wrangler.
In the meantime, she looked around the room. It was clean, in fact surprisingly so, given she never would have thought of taverns to be well cleaned, considering the draw was the alcohol of the pub, not the bedrooms. Either way, it was clean enough to pass her inspection, with the single bed centered against one wall and a single window showing the street. There was no closet and the dresser was relatively small, not even large enough for her to fit in there for a surprise attack. The room was sparse, with a low table, single (extremely ugly) painting, and (kind of dying) potted plant being the only unnecessary ornamentations.
As far as she could tell, there was no way in aside from the door, considering that the window certainly wouldn’t fit her shoulders, much less her hips. It was only wide enough to fit her head through, but positioned well enough to see if someone was scoping the room, placed at an angle to make it harder on anyone trying to look in. The window couldn’t give a very good view of the room because of that angle.
Who in the Water was Jymothie Byrd that his inn was created like a safe house? Did he know he was housing the Palnoki? Was he a Herald sympathizer? Or worse yet, was he a Palnoki sympathizer? She sat back down on the bed and thought for a moment. Essebelle hadn’t given her much more information on Byrd than Atlas had, which was to say, she knew next to nothing on the man other than he was a human ally of Amaya and her friends (which wasn’t quite the same as being a Herald sympathizer, but she was leaning toward that) who happened to own the tavern in which three Heralds worked and two Palnoki members lived. Deciding to get more information on Jymothie Byrd the moment she was done with this mission, she put her thoughts on the mysterious man behind her.
A knock on the door made her frown. She crept to the door and clutched the knife attached to her right forearm. “Who is it?” she called softly.
“It’s Mitch. I just wanted to check on you. Jazz said something happened.”
She almost laughed. It was perfect. Instead of her having to leave the room, he was coming right to her. She was instantly back on the bed, lying on her side with her back to the door. “You can come in,” she called back at the door. She purposely tried to sound as pathetic as possible, knowing that the predator in the vampire wouldn’t be able to walk away from that type of prey, regardless of whether he was supposed to be her friend or not.
The friend in Palnoki’s Wrangler towards her sister must have been strong (or at least his orders not to arouse negative suspicion) because the vampire hesitated. “Are you sure you don’t want Jazz or Byrd? They’re right downstairs.”
She gave a rather convincing sniffle. “We’re friends too, right?”
“Of course,” he responded immediately, but still didn’t open the door. She didn’t even think he’d turned the doorknob yet. “It’s just I’m not sure I’m the one you should talk to right now.”
“Please, Mitch?” she pleaded, rolling her eyes. She gave another pathetic whimper before the man turned the doorknob.
“What do you need to talk about?” he asked, hovering at the doorway. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that he was barely in the room. She gathered herself up into a sitting position, hunched over her legs.
“I heard something,” she whispered.
The vampire immediately straightened up, eyeing her warily. “What kind of something?” he asked in response, glancing over his shoulder before closing the door behind him.
“Something really, really scary.”
“About what?” he asked, hovering at the edge of the bed. He didn’t sit down beside her, didn’t even lean over the bed to get closer to her. Instead, he stood there awkwardly with his arms crossed over his chest and his wide-brimmed hat low, throwing shadow over his face. For some reason he seemed familiar to her, more familiar than just some random vampire she had fought earlier.
“You and Tenshu,” she said, looking up at him. It was then, when he tilted his head back in a jerky motion of surprise that she saw his face.
She froze in shock, staring at him. She recognized him. He was the vampire, Mitch, who had helped Lizu screw her over. He was the reason she had messed up the Madra job, he was the one who had beaten her until she couldn’t move, before sending her back to the Phoegani, courtesy of the Huron clan. Mitchell Hunnigan, she mentally tasted the name, vowing right then and there to get back at him in an incredibly personal way. He had made it personal.
“What about us?” he demanded, uncrossing his arms and sinking down onto the bed before her. They both stared at each other for a moment before he blinked twice, rapidly. He gave an abrupt sniff of the air before her just as she curled her fist into a ball.
“Son of a Feral hog,” he cursed, jolting up just before she launched herself at him.
“You double fanged worm,” she hissed, pressing her blade to his throat.
He laughed, “I should have known,” he said before pushing her off of him, an easy feat for the dead-vampire that shoved her all the way back into the wall.
He moved again before her head was no longer spinning from its meeting with the wall, this time with him in control of the situation. He had his forearm pressed against her throat and her back to the wall, his lower body holding her in place.
“What have you done with Tenshu?” he demanded.
He pulled his arm back so that she could answer, and instead, she laughed. “That’s who you’re worried about?” she bluffed.
He narrowed his eyes for a moment, studying her before he seemed to catch on to her implication, his eyes widening. “What did you do to Amaya?” he hissed, baring his fangs at her.
She gave him a cocky smile. “If you kill me, then you’ll never know, now will you?”
“I don’t have to kill you,” he threatened.
“And I don’t have to keep her alive,” she countered.
They eyed each other for a moment, a battle of wills happening purely between their eyes. His iris-less eyes broke contact first, the giant pupil glancing from her face and to the window. He pulled back from her and crossed his arms over his chest, taking two moderate steps away from her.
“Where is she?” he asked, turning so that he wasn’t facing her full on. She recognized the sign of a dead-vampire trying to disassociate a person from prey and chose not to move. She might have been faster than him when using her Gift, but he was definitely much stronger than she was. One wrong move and he would have her. Considering she had only recently fully recovered from his last assault on her, she knew she wouldn’t stand a chance once he had her. Her only hope was to calm his predator senses down long enough to incapacitate him so that she could get him back to base. Once there, there were people whose entire job was to contain prisoners.
“Come with me and you’ll find out,” she suggested.
“Or I could just stall and get you stuck here,” he replied casually, re-adjusting his hat. “I’m sure Byrd and Hynnkel would have a fun time getting the answers out of you. Of course, that’s only if Jazz and Squirrel leave anything of you to question.”
Amadhay faked a laugh, trying to cover her discomfort with bravado. That was exactly what she was worried about, any of the others coming in. She couldn’t pretend to be Amaya when Hunnigan knew for a fact that she wasn’t and planned to out her. She would have to flee empty-handed, again. She couldn’t allow that to happen, not this time.
“If I’m not in contact in one clack, they’re going to hurt her until I get back. Do you want to be the reason sweet little Amaya is hurt?” she taunted.
She didn’t miss the tensing of his muscles. If she had, he would have pinned her again, but instead he grabbed nothing but air. She was once again sitting on the bed, cross-legged this time. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” she scolded him. “That is no way to treat someone. Screw me over once, it’s luck. Do it twice and I’m fucking stupid.”
He gave her an unimpressed look over his shoulder before turning to face her full on, his arms once again crossed over his chest. “What do you want, Amadhay?”
“Honestly? To destroy you,” she said with a nonchalant shrug even as she mentally went over her every interaction with him to determine how he knew her name. Atlas, she finally decided. Atlas must have told him that she was Red Robin. Recognizing her smell as Red Robin was one thing, associating that smell with “Amadhay” was a whole other. She had been painstakingly careful to be “Daia” in Madra and had had a glamour witch alter her appearance just enough that she shouldn’t have been recognizable as the dead Hakinato ladyling.
She touched her face, only to be reminded that she wasn’t wearing her mask before standing up on the bed. She had meant for it to be smooth and impressive, but the bed was soft and a bit squishy, which made her have to shift so as not to fall over and stand with her legs apart, making her shorter than she already was, even with the extra height from the bed. Either way, she tried for a superior expression. “But I can live with taking you in.”
“And if I go with you?” he asked, no humor in his voice, which made her happy. She remembered him with amusement in his voice all the time. She remembered him laughing as he kicked her down, him joking right before he bit into her shoulder, her back, her hand, an amused twinkle in his eye as she lay on the floor, right before he knocked her unconscious. No humor meant he didn’t have the upper hand this time. Atlas had been right. She did hold all the pieces in her hands.
“Then I won’t hurt Amaya,” she replied with a smirk. “Though I can’t promise the same for your necromancer partner.”
A sardonic grin came to his lips. “Mm, and how’s yours? Still dead?”
Her fists clenched, but despite all of her impulses, she did not hit him. She was almost positive he wanted her to get close enough for him to grab her. “He’s fine. Are you coming or not? We only have a few more clicks before they start cutting into her.”
Hunnigan scowled and glanced at her wrist, where a silver coil was wrapped as a bracelet, marks etched into it in a pattern. “Let me guess. Those are your cuffs,” he drawled patronizingly, giving her a disillusioned look before he put his hands behind his back and turned away from her. “Let’s get this over with.”
With him no longer looking at her, she relaxed, giving a soft exhalation of relief before hopping off of the bed. She uncoiled the silver from her wrist slowly, watching him carefully for any signs of movement. He simply wiggled his hands impatiently, still looking ahead instead of back at her. When she was close enough to wrap them around his hands, he did just as she dreaded, gripping her wrist with one of his and pulling her to his front.
She coiled part of the silver around his free wrist before his other hand also clasped around her free wrist. They stood before each other, holding each other’s opposite wrists, his right one cuffed while her left hand held the rest of the coil.
“If you harm either one of them I will—”
“If you don’t let go of me, I will take your hand off,” Amadhay threatened before he could finish his threat. The coil around his wrist tightened and heated without her moving. She stared up at him, eyebrows raised, practically asking him to call her bluff so that she could do it.
He didn’t. Instead, he let go of her wrists. His expression was stony as she wrapped part of the remaining coil around his other wrist and gripped the silver between coils. “Now we can go,” she said chipperly, smiling at him.