Read the Beginning of Shield & Blade
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Please note that there are SPOILERS for Royal Spy and Royal Captive. You've been warned!
Venn dragged a hand down his face as his boots scuffed the carpeted halls of Lord Francin’s manor. Dawn would break soon, and he was exhausted from being up all night, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Not until he saw Vera.
The knuckles on his right hand throbbed. He shouldn’t have hit the Rose. Bennick had invited him to the interrogation in order to keep him from snapping; instead, Venn had been the one to crack under the assassin’s taunts.
But the Rose had nearly killed Vera tonight. He’d attacked Clare and Wilf, too. It was a miracle they were all still breathing, and even acknowledging that fact made Venn’s chest ache. He had no idea how Bennick was coping; the night had been bad enough before learning the Rose was his half-brother. Venn couldn’t imagine what his friend must be feeling right now.
He rounded the final corner that brought his room into view—the place he’d carried Vera after the Rose’s attack. Two guards stood at attention, and seeing them in place released some of the tension in his shoulders.
He kept his voice low as he approached. “Has the physician been back to check on her?”
The nearest guard answered, his quiet voice strangely loud in the otherwise silent hall. “Yes, about two hours ago. She was awake.”
Relief rushed through him. Thank the fates.
When he’d last seen Vera, she’d been unconscious. The Rose had thrown her across the room, and she had a large knot on the back of her head. Venn had felt utterly useless; all he could do was sit on the bed beside her and hold her limp hand, terrified that each shallow breath would be her last.
He was a soldier. He didn’t do well when the enemy was something he couldn’t fight.
Knowing she’d woken should be enough. He should leave her alone to sleep, and not risk disturbing her.
But he needed to see her with his own eyes. To know for himself that she was really all right.
He stepped past the guards and gently opened the door.
On the far side of the room the curtains were open, letting in the purple-gray light of pre-dawn. Vera was curled in the bed, her back to the door. Her blond hair trailed over the pillow, a haunting reminder of how they’d found Ivonne after the Rose had killed her in Halbrook. But he could hear Vera’s breaths and see each one with the steady rise and fall of the blankets.
He hadn’t lost her. He would never lose her. That was a vow he made to himself, here and now. He would give his last breath for Vera Smallwood, no question. No hesitation. Because he loved her.
He hadn’t confessed the depth of his feelings yet; she’d needed space after her sister’s death. He understood that. It had hurt when she’d distanced herself, when all he wanted to do was hold her, but, fates, he understood. Her pain was still too fresh, too overwhelming. But when she was ready for his comfort, he would be there.
He would always be there for her.
Venn eased the door closed behind him and softly moved across the room. He didn’t want to disturb her, so he didn’t sit on the edge of the bed. Instead, he grabbed a wooden chair from the corner and carried it over. When he set it silently beside the bed, Vera was staring up at him.
His mouth eased into an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I was trying to be quiet.”
Her lips were pressed together, her eyes unblinking. It was the flattest expression he had ever seen on her, and sudden wariness pinched his spine.
He sat on the edge of the chair, his pulse pounding faster as he studied her shielded gaze. “How do you feel? Are you in pain? I can send for the physician.”
“No.” Her voice was low and revealed none of her thoughts.
Venn swallowed dryly. His hands itched to touch her, but instinct screamed that would be a mistake.
He hated that they’d lost their footing since Ivonne’s death. It made all of this so fates-blasted difficult.
He leaned forward, forearms braced on his knees, his empty hands dangling. He forced a thin smile. “Clare is safe.”
“The physician told me.”
Her voice had never been so emotionless, and it sounded so wrong; Vera was everything light and cheerful. Her pain at losing her sister had gutted him, but this flatness . . .
It scared him.
He cleared his throat. “Can I get you anything?”
“I don’t need anything from you.”
His heart rate ratcheted. She couldn’t have meant her words to sound so harsh, even though she’d spoken so certainly. It had been a long night, and they were both exhausted. That was all.
Her voice was quiet, but horribly resolute. “I want you to leave.”
His stomach dropped, even as his thoughts raced. You’re misreading her. She’s not ordering you away for good. She just wants to sleep.
“I’ll go,” he said, a thin catch in his voice. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have disturbed you. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”
Her jaw tensed. “I can’t keep doing this. I need you to leave me alone.”
Venn stared at her. Shock, hurt, and denial punched through him. “I . . . don’t understand.”
For the first time, pain was evident in her eyes. “You haven’t understood me for days. I don’t want your sympathy, or your comfort. I don’t want you.”
Venn drew back, the chair creaking under his weight. His gut churned. “Vera, I know you’re hurting right now, but—”
“Do you think this is ever going to change?” she cut in. “That I’m going to look at you and not see the man who failed to save my sister?”
The words were a knife in his heart. “I—I’m sorry for what happened to Ivonne. But that wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t there—”
“I’m perfectly aware of that.” Her beautiful eyes sharpened. “No one was there for her. You had weeks to catch him, but you failed, and my sister paid the price.”
“I’m so sorry.” It was all he could think to say.
Tears swam in her eyes as she continued to watch him. “So am I.”
It was the finality of her words that snapped something inside him. Made all of this suddenly real. His lungs tightened, making his words sound pinched. “Please don’t do this. Vera, I love you.”
The words just slipped out, and the desperate edge in them made them no less true.
He’d imagined what it would be like to say them. He’d pictured Vera’s blush. Her grin. Her arms winding around him and his head buried in her hair as he said it again and again. I love you. I love you. I love you . . .
He’d held those words close, awaiting the perfect moment to give them air.
But nothing was right about this moment.
A ripple of emotion crossed Vera’s face, and then her jaw hardened. Her eyes went flatter than before, despite a mist of unshed tears. Her silence was the most painful rejection he could ever imagine, and it was in this moment that he truly realized what was happening.
He was losing her.
His stomach was a yawning pit and his pulse thudded in his ears. Reaching for her was instinct, his dark fingers curling toward her hand.
She jerked away before he could touch her.
Venn froze at her recoil. Everything within him was cold as ice. “Please,” he breathed.
Vera’s focus was unyielding as she stared at him. “I don’t love you, Venn. I never could. Not now.”
Behind him, weak light began to creep across the room. His shadow was cast over Vera, and he knew what she was saying. He understood the words. But for the life of him, he couldn’t understand what he was supposed to do now.
Slowly, he rose. She watched him, those tears still swimming in her eyes, but not falling.
“I’m sorry I disturbed you.” His voice sounded muted. Wooden. It took all of his strength to continue. “I assure you, it won’t happen again.”
He strode for the door, not sure why he thought she might call him back. She had been quite clear, and far calmer than he was.
It still tore out his heart when she didn’t make a sound.
As he opened the door to leave, new sunlight painted the walls around him. The light did nothing to warm him, though. Because as dawn broke, something inside of him did, too.
Mortise - Three Weeks Later
Vera’s toe caught the edge of a cobblestone and she pitched forward, the dagger she’d stolen from Tariq clenched painfully in her hand. Her heart pounded erratically as her stride hitched, but she managed to keep running.
She couldn’t afford to fall.
Tariq was chasing her, and she didn’t want to imagine what he would do if he caught her.
Though it was full dark, the streets of Krid were overrun with men, women, and children. Glowing lanterns and roaring bonfires lit the night, illuminating purple flags that fluttered overhead. The flags were decorations for a two-week holiday Salim had mentioned when they’d first arrived in the dirty Mortisian city. Laughter boomed as people celebrated the Dawn of Eyrinthia, and their festive mood created a horrible juxtaposition to the terror and guilt rushing through Vera’s body.
She shouldn’t have left Clare. Salim might kill her for attacking him with the garrote. At the very least, the mercenary leader would punish her. And they’d learned over the past few weeks just how cruel Salim could be.
“Out of my way!” Tariq’s snarl was swallowed nearly at once in the roar of the crowd. Even still, the sound of his voice—closer than before—shot her veins with ice. Her stomach churned as she dodged around a hulking man who shot her an irritated glare, but she didn’t slow.
Her lungs burned and sweat slicked her skin as she darted around a corner. This street was narrower, but just as crowded. Light spilled out of open doors, the taverns, shops, and homes all open to the night. Unfamiliar spices tickled her nose. Men and women hawked food and wares, drums beat and flutes trilled, and the foreign words of the Mortisian language swam around her. No one paid her more than a passing glance, and for once Vera was grateful for the indifferent crowds that choked the sprawling Mortisian city; getting lost in the sea of strangers might be her only chance of survival.
Her wrists stung as the rope binding them rubbed against her raw flesh. She hadn’t even had time to cut her bonds. She’d known the moment she’d run out of the inn that Clare’s stalemate would only last so long. That someone would chase after her.
Even before she’d heard him, she knew it would be Tariq. The mercenary had taken a horrible interest in her from the beginning. He’d been the one to abduct her during the ambush on the road, and he’d sought out any excuse to touch her ever since. His dark eyes had wandered her body freely, making his desire only too clear. She didn’t think she’d ever forget waking up during the night, shivering on the cold ground of the mercenary camp, only to find him staring at her. The mere memory made her skin prickle and her stomach roil. Tariq would follow her relentlessly, and he wouldn’t make her death easy, fast, or painless.
A growl vibrated behind Vera, and fear blasted through her. Tariq was gaining.
Adrenaline propelled her forward, but the shock to her exhausted body was taking its toll. Her strength was flagging. Every footfall brought a burst of pain. Blood pooled beneath the soles of her aching feet, and after weeks of having only enough food to survive, her entire body shook. She wouldn’t be able to run much longer. Unless she changed tactics, Tariq would catch her.
Panic sliced through her chest. She looked around wildly for a place to hide. Her first thought was the tavern on her left. It was brightly lit and full of people. She could try to hide among them.
But Tariq might expect that.
On her right, the darkened mouth of a narrow alley waited.
She hesitated for only a split second before diving into the alley.
The cramped space was rank with the stench of rotten food and worse, but she didn’t worry about what might lurk in the shadows; not when she knew exactly what kind of evil pursued her.
She tripped on some debris and nearly went down among a pile of splintered crates, but managed to catch herself against a large barrel. Pain flashed up her arm from the hit, but she ignored that as she scrambled behind a set of barrels and crouched down, her back against the cold brick wall of the alley.
Her lungs heaved for air and her knuckles screamed as she strangled the dagger in her hands.
If she was fated to die tonight, she swore she would take him with her.
The music and laughter from the nearby street drifted over her, the only sound other than her low and stuttered breaths. Then curt footsteps entered the alley.
Vera hunched lower behind the barrels, her stomach clenching painfully as she pinched her eyes closed.
Venn’s face was all she could see. His half-grin. His piercing eyes.
The thought was so fervent, it could have been a prayer. She hoped somehow it would reach him.
The footsteps hesitated.
Vera held her breath. A bead of sweat rolled down her spine and the knife in her hands shook.
Tariq bit out a curse. The heel of his boot grated over the stone, and then darted away. With every beat of her pulse his footsteps faded, until all she heard was the pounding of her own heart. Tears pricked her eyes and the muscles in her legs cramped, but she didn’t dare move out from behind the barrels. She kept waiting for him to come back. To find her.
But though she remained alert with the dagger strangled in her shaking grip, he never did.
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