Silver’s pleased expression vanished. “Talk?”
“Not here.” Amber’s eyes flicked to Lilith as she led them out of the market. “It’s not safe.”
Not safe for them, or for her? Lilith couldn’t help but scan her surroundings, glancing back at the ewte’s market stall, but saw nothing. Yet Silver and Amber flanked her, hurrying her away from the market. Lilith wasn’t sure whether they were trying to protect her or stop her from running away.
Of course it was the latter, Lilith sneered. Couldn’t have their precious cargo escaping before they’d sold her off to the Guild. She’d trudged along compliantly with their demands, for what? They weren’t going to take her home. All that mattered to them was their pack, their stupid infected concerns. Not even a word of thanks from either of them, though the cold skins cradled in Amber’s arms were her doing.
Lilith’s anger returned, comforting in its familiarity. For the last two days all she had been was angry, but it was preferable to the alternative: a crippling fear and insecurity. Not to mention that being angry with Silver made it easier to ignore how her breath hitched when he was close.
She snatched a skin out of Amber’s arms and lengthened her stride, marching towards the tall stone building she had seen earlier, its white walls gleaming under the midday sun. The large double doors were made of wood and metal, a dark green cross carved across both doors in a series of intricate loops.
The doors were closed, but that didn’t stop Lilith from taking refuge in the shade beneath the eaves. She pulled off the top of the skin and took a large gulp, then the foreign taste registered and she spat it onto the ground. Sweat beaded on her brow, her clothes sticky against her skin.
“It’s not water,” she snapped as Amber drew closer. Silver had stopped several feet away and was watching them.
Amber nodded slowly. “Why pay for water when you have a lake?”
“The lake?” Lilith looked at the shoreline, at the ewtes standing knee-deep in water. Who knew what else bathed in that lake. Lived in that lake. “It’s not filtered,” she said flatly.
“You drank from the river.”
“That was running water.”
“So is this,” Amber retorted. “Just, slower.”
The conversation was pointless. Lilith huffed, leaned against the doors. “It’s probably full of disease.”
Amber’s smile turned sharp. “I’m infected. Can’t get any more diseased, can I?”
It was an obvious bait. Lilith ignored it. “So, you wanted to talk?”
“Not here.” Seeing the set frown on Lilith’s lips, Amber added: “But soon.”
“Soon, soon,” Lilith mocked. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m the one about to be sold off. If you want me to cooperate, you have to give me some answers.” Her eyes slid past Amber, to Silver. He returned her stare, his expression inscrutable. “Actually, he has to give me some answers. It’s his fault I’m in this situation. It better be his fault I get out of it.”
“Tonight,” Amber said firmly. “Not here, where anyone can hear us. Where witches can hear us.”
With those words, Lilith remembered why the green cross was so familiar. She’d seen a similar one etched onto Dylan’s cheek, so faint it had almost seemed a bruise. Yet here it was, larger than life and unmistakable. Her stomach churned as she remember the spray of blood, how it had seeped into the grass.
“So you can kill me without anyone seeing,” Lilith said flatly.
Amber’s eyes narrowed. “Kill you? And then who would we have negotiate with the ewtes?” Her lip curled. “Not that they’ll negotiate with you now, after what you did.”
Silver started forward, but Amber stopped him with a wave of her hand. “I’ll explain later,” she said, challenging Lilith with her stare.
“Fine,” Lilith said. “I’ll wait until tonight . . . if you tell me what this means.” She held the fang necklace aloft.
Amber hesitated. Then: “It means you are Silver’s.”
Her hand tightened. “It that what it means? That I’m his slave?” And though she should have seen it coming, the truth hurt more than Lilith had expected. Her anger dissipated, leaving behind a weary numbness that turned her limbs to stone.
“A different kind of belonging,” Amber said, but Lilith shook her head; a stone by any other name remained a stone. “Tonight,” Amber insisted. “I’ll explain tonight.”
Lilith let go of the necklace, all too aware of its weight. Her lips were stiff, her throat coated in sand, and the back of her head had turned hollow with pain. She took a reluctant sip from the skin. It tasted strange—sweet—like flavoured water.
“It’ll help you rehydrate,” Amber said. “Replace lost salts. Give you energy. It’ll make you feel better.”
Lilith didn’t reply, kept her head down as she fell into step beside Amber. Silver brought up the rear. He was staring at her; she could tell by the way the back of her neck prickled.
The murmur of the lake and the cries of the stallholders were muted as the stone and wood houses closed in around them.
Lilith could only think of one thing.
Tonight, she’d finally get some answers.
Amber took them to a hotel—or what passed for a hotel in a town as small as Rivton. A wooden porch jutted out the front of the stone building, with supporting wooden poles spaced evenly along the front. Even the door was made of wood; Lilith had never imagined that such an expensive material could be made so commonplace.
Still, she wouldn’t complain. A night spent indoors with clean water and a fresh bed now seemed a luxury after the rough wilderness of the forest. Little things, she thought sardonically. One would think she was becoming resigned to life above ground.
On the other side of the doorway was a small room, barely large enough to serve as a reception, a hallway opening up on the left. The floors were dull from repeated scrubbings, but a vase of fresh flowers graced the wooden counter. Real flowers. Her fingers itched to touch them.
A woman was sitting behind the counter, filing her nails. “We’re full, sorry,” she said, hardly glancing past the grime on their clothes. Then she took a second look and straightened. “Are you guys dogs or wolves?”
Silver’s withering look said it all.
“Wolves, of course.” Her expression turned calculating. “I’ve two rooms left. En suite. Far nicer than anything you’ll get at the inn.”
Amber’s eyes narrowed. “How much?”
“We’re not taking cash.”
Lilith wondered if the wad of money in her shoe would change the woman’s mind, but she was loathe to reveal it. One sniff and the werekin would take it away, and then she would truly have nothing. If only she still had her phone . . . No doubt she could have sold it for parts.
Amber scoffed. “We’re not giving blood for a room.” She turned away, herded Lilith towards the door. “Let’s go to the inn.”
“Wait!” The woman had stood up. “I’ll give you clothes, too. Brand new.”
“My life for some clothes and a room,” Amber said flatly. Was this how wolves behaved around other infected? Aggressive, unyielding? The pack had not behaved particularly warmly towards Lilith, but there was a hardness to Amber’s face that she’d never seen before. Perhaps, as Silver’s slave, Lilith was accorded the smallest of courtesies.
“And food,” the woman said. Her smile was self-deprecating. “Times are hard.” When Amber hesitated, the woman leaned forward, sensing victory. “Only three vials,” she said gently.
It was Silver who spoke, not Amber. He was lounging against the doorframe, arms crossed, head tilted upwards as if he wasn’t paying attention. But of course he was. He always was.
Lilith looked between them, saw Amber push down a surge of anger. “And an oath,” she added angrily, “that it won’t be sold to the WPL.”
The woman’s smile was tight. “I, Mel Thorne, renegade witch of Rivton, hereby swear on the gods that I will not sell your blood to the WPL.”
The silence after her pronouncement seemed charged, heavy. Magic, or just the growing tension in the room? Lilith didn’t have the chance to find out.
The woman led them around the counter. There was a second door, half-hidden in the right corner. On the other side was an even smaller room, unfurnished save for a table and two chairs, and a single long shelf along one wall.
Silver settled against the wall near the doorway, arms crossed, a lurking shadow. Amber glared, settling into one of the chairs as the woman took a box from the shelf. The woman opened the box, took out a syringe and handed it to Amber, who examined the needle, flicking her nail against the metal.
The woman shifted impatiently. “It’s copper.”
“I like to be sure.” Amber held out the syringe, but didn’t let go when the woman tried to take it.
The woman looked at her. “What?”
“If this blood is for the WPL, you’re dead.”
“I swore an oath.”
No one spoke after that. The woman wiped the needle clean, then pulled out two glass vials, frowning as she focused. Her nose was flat, her jaw square, but despite it all she had a subtle prettiness, a hint of womanly sensuality. Perhaps it had to do with the way her thick, straightened hair lay heavily on her shoulders, or the faint pink sheen of her lips.
The first glass vial was almost full, the dark liquid inside indistinguishable from human blood. Just the sight of it made Lilith feel sick; it was infected blood, everything she didn’t want to be.
The woman withdrew the needle, pressed down on Amber’s arm with a finger.
Then she looked at Lilith. “Your turn.”