That dirty, liver-eating shitehole threw ale all over me!
“This tripe’s disgusting!” he snarled. “Cost a whole half-penny and tastes worse than my boot!”
I was soaked and freezing. My eyes glazed over with rage. I swiped a hand over my sopping face and focused on the jerk holding the empty cup. I ignored the table I was serving.
There was a reason this asshole’s food tasted awful. It was three-day-old fish I’d saved specifically for him. I bit down on my smile.
The inn was crowded with miners on payday. Here to play until their pockets were empty. Entitled as shite because they had two coins to rub together.
Case in point, Tripe-man picked up his plate, ready to toss that at me, too.
Asswipe. He thought he could steal from Kylee, and then waltz back in here? That tripe would have him heaving in no time. But I had to pretend I didn’t know that. That I was outraged by his attempt to attack me with it.
I held up an arm to block him. “I didn’t cook it, you piss-pot! If you don’t like the food, leave.”
“I want my money back, you soulless witch!”
My power flared. Oh, if he only knew. I shoved my power down and grabbed Tripey by the collar. “You want roasted duck? Go to the palace and try your luck there! Of course, I hear they like suckling pig. You might end up on the table.”
“How about you suckle my pig!” a nearby miner shouted.
“You mean piglet!” I yelled at the heckler as I dragged Tripe-face toward the door. I’m not that strong, but he wasn’t that big, and rage was a big motivator. I tossed him into the dirt. “Don’t come back.”
“In your dreams, Tiny!”
I turned to go back inside and nearly ran into a wall of a man. Green vest, gold pocket watch, pressed shirt. All covering a body that used to be pure muscle. But, running an inn and gambling hall made Kylee soft. It was the only explanation for why the brute hired me. He was soft in the head. It was how jerks were able to steal from him.
I bit my lip and looked up. “Sorry, sir.”
“Bea, you can’t keep throwing out patrons.”
I sighed. “I know.”
“Gonna have to—”
“Dock my pay. I know.”
Damn it all. I needed that money.
But I didn’t argue. Kylee didn’t know what I was doing. And I wouldn’t embarrass him by saying I knew he’d been swindled. No man liked to feel a fool.
“Learn to control that temper, Little Dragon. Then I can toss you in the back with the fat cats. They’d love you.” He nodded left toward the double doors that opened onto the gambling hall, where the nobles and merchants sat, laughing and playing as much with the prostitutes on their laps as they did with the cards in their hands.
I shook my head. “No thanks.”
Kylee ruffled my hair. “Well, if you don’t want that, get your pretty butt upstairs and change before those tits start a riot down here.”
I glanced down. Sure enough, my wet shirt was see-through. My nipples had pebbled and were straining the transparent cotton.
“Don’t tell Abel or Marcus,” I wagged a warning finger at Kylee as I tromped over to the servant’s stairwell.
“They’re probably already up in your room, panting,” he barked out a laugh and shuffled back toward the poker table.
I rolled my eyes and hiked up my skirts to climb the stairs, hoping Kylee was wrong.
Two handsome stable hands stood in my doorway gawking, eyes glued to my shirt.
“No. I’m working. Get out if you want a repeat of the other night.” I jabbed a finger at the hallway and went to my trunk to rummage around for a decent shirt. I swore under my breath. My poor drunken decision-making had led me to make out with the pair of very horny halfling grooms and they’d been heckling me for a repeat performance ever since.
I rustled through the trunk, careful not to jostle the false bottom. I couldn’t find a clean shirt. I’d have to put on my black dress. The one that had become far too tight recently. Damn spelled disguise was reaching its expiration date. I’d have to get another soon.
I grabbed the dress, tossed it on the bed, and turned to pull up my top only to find two very naughty stable hands still staring at me.
“I said no!” I felt my power flicker again, in response to my annoyance. I shoved it away.
“Please, Bea, just let us watch,” Marcus whined.
I took a step toward him. “So help me Marcus, I will use that horsewhip on your hip.”
Marcus grabbed Abel and sprinted out of the room.
I laughed and tossed my sopping shirt on the floor. I got rid of my green skirt and pulled on the black dress. A few weeks ago, my bust expanded because of this stupid spell. Spelled disguises tended to go wonky as they reached expiration. The spell had made my bust grow a cup size. I’d tried to hide it. But men have an annoying sort of perception when it comes to breasts. Never hair. Never my clean face, though I supposed I should be thankful my nose hadn’t grown instead. That might have caused awkward questions. But the curves had started causing chaos.
It didn’t help the fact that I caused enough chaos on my own before then. Kylee called me a dragon because he said I spit fire. I couldn’t help it. My tongue had been reigned in for so long growing up. Now it just unleashed. Even four years on my own hadn’t been long enough to tame it.
I went to the looking glass to fix up my hair. I finger combed my brown locks, pinched my cheeks, added some extra kohl around my spelled brown eyes. That stupid miner. He’d cost me two pence, which would delay my next disguise. I might have to head out to the Cerulean Forest. Abandon Kylee’s place and just run. Sard it all.
I turned to leave just in time to see Jenna come up the stairs, her gown ripped at the shoulder. I started to ask what happened to her, but it was pretty obvious. Jenna worked the gambling hall.
“Bea, can you cover for me?” Jenna turned her little nymph face on me. “I just need to change. I’ll be done in a jiff. But there’s a drink order and a stew order up and—”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, but hurry back. You know I hate that place.”
Jenna nodded seriously. “Absolutely! You’re the best!”
I tromped into the kitchen, grabbed Jenna’s orders, and headed toward the gambling hall. I even pasted a fake smile on my face.
“Here you are m’lord,” I pushed my accent a bit more low-class as I handed our very own Duke Aiden his stew.
My rump got an approving smack. I gritted my teeth to keep the smile on my face as I turned to serve another jerk at his table.
I set the drink down. The man made eye contact with me. He smirked.
I nearly dropped my jaw. Not because I knew the man. I knew his crest.
He was the palace spy master. And by the look in his eyes, he’d found what he was looking for.
* * *
It took all of my self-control not to run, right then and there. But he would have caught me. I was sure he’d have posted guards around the inn. I had to be stealthy.
So, instead I widened my eyes like a sodding fool, gave him a deferential nod, and pushed my arms together so the girls would pop just a smidge more out of the black dress.
He didn’t even look, though his mouth curled up a bit more at the corner. As if I amused him.
It was a fine mouth, thick and sensuous. I tried not to think about it as I turned and headed for the kitchen.
I tried not to think about how fine a specimen he was at all. I tossed his grey eyes, pointed elf ears, and clipped black beard out of my head. Because I had no use for handsome spies. The only good thing about seeing him was that now I had a face to go with the name of my enemy. Quinn Byrne. The queen’s spy master.
Once I reached the kitchen, I doubled my speed. I nearly bowled Jenna over.
“Delivered your orders. Tell Kylee thanks for me.”
Jenna raised a brow, but I simply darted up the servant’s stairs. I raced to my room, threw open my trunk, and fished around to unlatch the false bottom. I snatched my enchanted cloak, my sword, my dwindling bag of coins and jewelry. Carefully, I removed the last, tiny bottle of Flight that I had left. I hastily donned everything, keeping the bottle in hand. Then I checked the window.
I didn’t see Quinn outside yet. Hopefully, the arrogant duke had detained him a moment. But I wasn’t willing to chance anything. I eased open my window and slid out onto the shingled roof. The pitch was steep, but I only needed to go a few yards for clearance. I teetered forward, like a newborn calf, trying to keep my balance.
A figure moved down in the yard, just as I brought the bottle of Flight to my lips.
A curse rang out over the inn yard as I leapt toward the sunset, the wind whipping at my skirts.
A smile stretched across my lips as I turned my head to watch the spy master pass Marcus, whose jaw had dropped in shock, and run toward the stable.
Did he think I’d escaped four years ago by using common means—
My thoughts faltered as Quinn Byrne emerged on the roof of the stable and took a flying leap into the air.
I whipped my head forward and willed myself to go faster.
There was no way I was going to let him catch me. No way I was going back. I closed my eyes and flew right toward the sun.
Let the bastard go blind trying to catch me, I thought.
After the sun slipped below the horizon, I dove into some clouds. The wet chill clung to my skin. I couldn’t see, but I pressed forward. I had to make it to Cerena’s cottage. A few minutes there and I’d disappear again with a completely new body. I’d beg a spelled disguise out of her, even if I was short of coin. I’d no doubt I’d been her best customer for years.
Fear chilled my bones deeper than the wet clouds that clung to my skin.
Was that how he’d found me? Did he know about Cerena?
I hadn’t been to her in months. I’d gotten two spelled disguises the last time I’d seen the hedge witch. She hadn’t even seen the newest face I was using. I hadn’t told her I’d been working at Kylee’s. The fear eased a bit. I was being silly. Paranoid. Kylee’s was a common way point in the Cerulean Forest. I’d chosen it for the gossip.
I hadn’t heard anything I’d been hoping for. But I’d heard plenty. I’d heard endless complaints about Duke Aiden and his lackadaisical management, his lean coffers, and his penchant for entertaining guests from the kingdom of Gitmore, the sworn enemies of Evaness.
I’d been planning on sending a dove home, to let my best friend know about the Duke’s tendencies. But, with the spy master complication, any communication would need to be put on hold.
I ducked beneath the clouds and swore. I’d overshot Cerena’s. I decided to land and make my way back on foot, rather than chance running into Quinn Byrne and his grey eyes in midair.
I landed in a pile of blue leaves, the yellow leached out of their summer green by the brisk change of season. The scent of dry, cool fall weather drifted over me. I inhaled and smiled into the twilight. Fall was my favorite season. The early nights meant respite from work for the poor farmhands (the few customers I actually liked serving). Fall meant warm stew that filled your belly as you put your feet near a roaring fire, inhaled the blissful smell of woodsmoke, and let the chill and heat fight for control of your body.
A fox darted out of the trees near me and I froze. I stood stock still and stared around me. Tingling anticipation crept up my spine. Something was out there. The question was whether it was the spy master.
The wind trailed its fingers over my neck and I suppressed a shiver.
My hands crept to my sword, but I didn’t unsheathe it. No need to draw attention to myself if the fox was simply escaping a predator.
My pulse raced, and I forced myself to breathe slowly and silently, as I’d learned in combat practice. I tried to use the adrenaline to remain alert. To stay focused. But the longer I failed to see anything, the harder that became. My hands started to tremble. My body had to release the tension.
Finally, when my hips grew sore from standing in the same position for so long, I decided the fox must have simply outfoxed another animal. I made my way through the woods to Cerena’s cottage.
I opened the door without knocking to find a wedded group already seated in front of the fire with my old friend. Three men and a woman swiveled their heads to glare at me.
“Excuse me,” Cerena stood from her wooden chair and gave me the stink eye. A proud old woman with wavy silver hair and a limp she disguised well, she was the best hedge witch for a hundred miles. Not good enough for my ultimate goals. But good enough to be of use.
I responded to her glare by putting my thumb and forefinger together in a circle, in the hand sign we’d agreed upon years ago, so she could identify me.
Cerena’s eyes widened but she turned to the group. “One moment. My … cousin needs a room for the evening. Let me just get her tucked away and we can continue.”
Cerena hurried me down the hall and up some rickety stairs. “You have the worst timing.”
“I’ll be out of your hair quickly.”
She rolled her eyes. “That group down there are lower nobles. Your appearance here is going to cause chatter.”
“Then I’ll take to the woods for a bit. No problem.” I shrugged.
Cerena rolled her eyes and opened the door to her bedroom. I shut it behind her as she opened the trunk where she kept her most potent spells. The spelled disguises that I desperately needed. “How many this time?”
“How many do you have?”
“Three prepared and I got a little creative with them. You know how you asked me to see about animal transformations. I worked that out. But …” she trailed off and held out her hand.
I sighed. I slipped my hand into my bag. The coins I had made at Kylee’s wouldn’t buy one disguise, let alone three. But with three … I’d be good for nearly a year. My hand clenched around a necklace. It’d be a dead giveaway, but I had to have those spells. “I need to trade this time.”
“Trade?” her lips curled back. “You know I don’t do trades.”
“I know you’re sick of fertility spells.” I jerk my head toward the stairs. “Let me guess, they want a girl.”
Cerena snorted. “Of course, they do.” The birth ratio in our country had been five men to one woman since the curse a thousand years ago. Every family group sought daughters like they sought gold. Because daughters would be worth gold, when sold to the right husband group.
She tucked the spell bottles into her pocket.
I pulled out the necklace. I let the rubies catch the moonlight. Let the diamonds wink at her.
Cerena’s eyes widened. “Where’d you get that?”
“They’ll string me up if I’m found—”
“Melt it down. Sell the stones separately. It wasn’t the queen’s. It wasn’t stolen.”
Bang. Bang. Bang.
I glanced over my shoulder. The front door downstairs creaked under someone’s vicious pounding. I had a good idea whose.
Cerena’s eyes turned back to mine and narrowed. She eyed me up and down. “Who’s after you? And why?”
I stepped up to her and placed the necklace in her hand. I heard a crash that could only have been the crash of the front door slamming open and hitting the wall. The family group’s exclamations drifted up through the wooden floor slats.
“Please,” I begged her.
“Who’s after you?”
“The palace spy master.”
She handed me one bottle.
I glared at her as footsteps pounded on the stairs. “Because I refuse to take the throne.”
I pried a second bottle from her shocked form and raced to the window as the door to her bedroom burst open.
I dove through the glass and twisted open a bottle as I fell. I put the vial to my lips as I met the spy master’s eyes.
Cat, I thought.
And then … I landed on four paws.