22

A COMMOTION IN THE OUTER ROOM WOKE ME. GRESSA BARGED into the bedroom with Nic on her heels.

“…here all night,” Nic said. “See?”

Anger simmered in her eyes as she studied me.

I sat up. “What’s wrong?”

Someone broke into the Councilor’s Hall last night. Someone matching your description.”

I had prepared for this. At least, the Hall’s guards weren’t with her. Jumping from bed, I let concern fill my face. “Is the Councilor all right? Did she get hurt?” I ignored the accusation for now.

She hesitated. “Tama is fine. No one was hurt.”

“Thank fate.” I relaxed with mock relief, then pressed my lips together. “What did they steal? Not that beautiful vase you made for her? That’s priceless!” I stroked her ego.

Confusion replaced anger. “Nothing was taken.”

“Oh.” I blinked at her for a moment before putting a hand to my breast in horror. “You said the intruder looked like me. You don’t think I…?”

Nic opened his mouth, but snapped it shut when she glared at him.

“No. Of course not. I’m checking to make sure no one tried to break in here. The person could have been after your messengers.”

“Did you examine the cabinet? Lee always locks them inside after they’re done annealing.”

“No. I wanted to ensure you were safe first.”

Her quick recovery and fast lies were impressive. I met Nic’s gaze. He seemed awed, as well, but smoothed his expression before Gressa noticed. We went through the motions, inspecting the cabinet, counting glass messengers in the annealing oven and speculating on reasons why someone would break into the Councilor’s Hall and not steal anything.

Eventually she left and I started my day. After sending a message to Janco by courier, I worked in the factory. As I crafted messengers, my thoughts kept returning to the address I found last night. Gressa had been ordering enough supplies for eight kilns with half going to Hubal. Why? No logical reason popped to mind. I would have to visit Hubal. It was a small town located about twenty miles northeast of Fulgor.

One problem. I needed to ditch my escorts for a couple of days. Plus, I would need to wait. If I disappeared right after the break-in, Gressa’s suspicion would return to me. It would also be prudent to be here for Janco or his reply.

On horseback, the messenger should reach the Ixian border in a day, delivering the note to the border guards. Assuming Janco was at the Commander’s Castle, he would receive my request in five days. If he left that day, the earliest he would arrive was ten days from now. Too bad the Commander banned all magic in Ixia. Otherwise, I could have contacted Janco via my glass messenger and halved the time.

Though sensible, my plan to wait produced an anxiety-inducing edginess. I imagined Tricky spreading his knowledge of blood magic like a stain, tainting everything it touched with red.

I followed my routine and tried to mask my impatience for action. After ten days of waiting, I twitched at every noise. By day twelve, I decided to go to Hubal without Janco.

Determined to pack and slip out the window that night, I fidgeted while Nic swept the apartment for intruders. He gave me the all-clear signal and left, guarding the door.

I barreled into the bedroom and skidded to a stop. Janco lounged on my bed with his hands laced behind his head and a smug smile on his face.

Recovering from my surprise, I said, “About time.”

He huffed. “Not quite the welcome I expected.”

“Thanks for coming. Is that better?”

“No. I imagined you would be so impressed by my ability to get past your watchdog, and so grateful for my arrival you would throw yourself at my feet and promise me your undying gratitude.”

It was nice to know he hadn’t changed. “If you can get free ale at the pub with that story, you can go ahead and use it.”

“Is this an official damsel-in-distress call? ’Cause that would help me with Ari. He’s going to be pissed I left. Especially since we had to explain to Valek how we managed to lose a smuggler.”

“Yes, it’s an official D-I-D call.”

“Ooh…I like.” He patted the bed, inviting me to join him. When I was comfortable, he said, “Spill.”

I explained everything. It felt as if the story lasted hours. Janco asked a few questions, then scratched the scar under his right ear. A queasy expression settled on his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He grimaced. “Well…If Yelena says souls can’t be switched, I’m inclined to believe her. There’s no reason for her to lie.”

I rushed to assure him. “I don’t think she’s lying. There are aspects of blood magic that we don’t know about. Just because she can’t switch souls doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

“And you want to find proof?”

“Yes.”

Mischief danced in his eyes. “How can I help?”

“Just an overnight trip,” I said to Gressa. “Quartz needs the exercise and I could use some fresh air.”

“But you haven’t finished the messengers for the Council yet. And we have orders waiting.” She tapped her fingers on the inventory list.

Time for a concession. “Why don’t you keep half the messengers for our clients. The Council should have enough for now.”

She brightened at the idea and agreed to my day off. I hoped my trip to Hubal would net us information. Janco had made many forays into the Councilor’s Hall and Tama’s and Gressa’s apartments without finding a bit of evidence. Disheartening unless they kept their files in another location.

The next morning, I packed a few things. Eve arrived to relieve Nic and I told her about my plans.

“Let’s stop by the station and I’ll grab my stuff,” Eve said.

“No offense, Eve, but I need some time to myself. No one has attacked me and no one knows where I’m going. I’ll be safe.”

“What about on the roads? You could be followed.”

“I could, but I doubt they’d catch me. Quartz is a Sandseed horse. Besides, I don’t plan to stop at any travel shelters or camp on the road. There’s a half-dozen small towns within a day’s ride. I’ll stay at an inn and be back by tomorrow afternoon. Promise.”

Her frown didn’t ease. “What if they trail you to the inn and ambush you there?”

Damn. Since she didn’t know about Janco, she had a good point. I thought fast. “How about if you watch me and see if anyone follows me from Fulgor. If no one does, then you don’t have to worry.”

“And if someone does?” she asked.

“Then please catch up.”

She laughed. “Where are you going?”

“South to Chandra. I’ll walk Quartz the first hour. If you don’t show up, I’ll assume no one is trailing me.”

She agreed with reluctance. Quartz squirmed as I saddled her. She was as anxious as I to be on the road. She trotted at the slightest movement from me, and holding her to a walk was difficult. I headed south, trying to keep a lookout for a tail, but didn’t notice anyone. After an hour, I touched Quartz with my heels. She broke into a gallop in an instant.

After a few miles, I turned her east, then northeast. I realized how easy it had been to lie to Eve. She trusted me, yet I wondered if the ease had come from me. My stomach used to get upset when I needed to go undercover. New Opal lied without remorse, playing Gressa and Tama’s game like a professional. I’d had a number of setbacks, but I’d learned how to be deceitful and ruthless.

Unfortunately I failed to factor in cheating.

The trip to Hubal was uneventful. I enjoyed the quiet hush that only a hot-season day could produce. The heat pressed down like a blanket with an occasional cicada’s rattle piercing the stillness.

No clouds marred the sky and few travelers walked on the road. Quartz burned off her energy until her coat gleamed with sweat. She slowed and I let her choose a pace. I glanced behind us from time to time. Janco trailed me, but he remained hidden.

We arrived in Hubal in the early afternoon. The downtown area spanned three blocks and included a handful of businesses. Most of the residents worked in the nearby quarries, digging out the white marble used to construct Sitia’s government buildings. There was little activity on the unmarked streets, making it near impossible for me to find the Boulder Street address listed in Gressa’s files.

I looped around the factories, searching for stockpiles of sand, smokestacks and the smell of molten glass. None of the structures indicated a glass shop might be inside.

I stopped at the Dolomite Inn and woke a stable boy from his afternoon nap. He stretched and yawned, helping me with Quartz’s saddle and tack. I fed her grain. She drank water as I groomed her. After making sure she had a comfortable and clean stall, I rented a room.

I chatted with the innkeeper, an older man whose hair had migrated from the top of his head to sprout from his ears, eyebrows and nose.

“What’s the main industry here?” I asked him.

“Engravers and carvers, mostly,” he said. “The slabs of stone from the quarries are cut to size, polished and then customized, depending on the order. The big government projects always want some fancy columns or statues. Date stones are popular.” He touched the top of his head as if he still couldn’t believe his hair was gone. “We also carve tombstones. Name, date—the works!”

“Any glass or pottery factories?”

“Nope. We import that stuff. We’re focused on stone, granite and marble.”

“I didn’t see a market.”

“Of course not, it’s not market day. You’ll have to wait three more days.”

I didn’t have the luxury of three more days. “Do you know where Boulder Street is?”

His wheezy laugh turned into a hiccup. “Half the streets in town are named Boulder, the other half are Stone. Masons are not known for their imagination.” When he regained his breath he asked, “What are you looking for?”

I debated how much to tell him. He seemed harmless, but I’d made that mistake before. “A friend wrote me that he found a job at a new factory here. I thought I’d visit him.”

“New?” The innkeeper pulled at his bushy white sideburns as if trying to yank the information from his brain. “I don’t know about new, but someone bought the old Donner place on the eastern edge of town. It’s tucked into the woods hidden from view. We haven’t seen much activity besides a few deliveries. Figured they were renovating the inside and would be looking for workers when it was ready.”

He gave me directions to the Donner place. I decided to let Quartz nap and walked to the site. I almost missed the narrow lane leading back to the factory. Paralleling the path, I crept through the woods. Surrounded by trees, the two-story building looked ordinary at first glance. However, the stone construction and smokestack hinted a kiln might be in use. I circled the structure and spotted oversize doors. Sand and lime littered the ground as if spilled from wagons being wheeled through the doors.

“What took you so long?” Janco asked.

“I asked for directions.”

He scoffed. “Amateur.”

“Am not.”

“Oh, yeah? Then why did you let your soldier friend follow you?”

“Eve’s here?” I looked around. No wonder it was too easy. She’d played along to see where I was going.

“She’s at the inn. She tried to trail you from there, but a clumsy man with a slab of marble almost knocked her out.” Janco tsked. “By the time they untangled, you were gone.”

“Guess I am an amateur.”

“You’re more a rookie,” Janco said. “You need to learn how to spot a tail.”

Muffled voices reached us and we ducked down. I glimpsed movement through the windows of the building.

“Is that our target?” Janco asked in a whisper.

“I think so.”

“Tonight, then.”

He traveled through the woods with silent steps. I felt like a pregnant cow in comparison. Did I really want to spend hours and hours and hours learning how to be a professional sneak? No. I’d rather be lying on a beach with Kade, with all this furtive nonsense behind me and with the Warpers all safely locked away.

I crouched in the darkness. Crickets chirped and an owl hooted above me. No sounds emanated from the factory. No light glowed from the windows. When I was confident the place was empty, I snuck to a side entrance and picked the lock.

The door swung inward with a tiny squeak. Heat puffed in my face, smelling of white coal and molten glass. I lit a small lantern. The ground floor contained two standard kilns, annealing ovens, benches and tools. Glassware and vases with Gressa’s unique design lined a shelf. Why did she make them here and not at her factory in Fulgor?

In a back room I found a dozen of my messengers. The messengers still glowed with magic. Gressa had tricked me and sent my batch here instead of to the Citadel. Unexpected. Points for her.

I glanced out a window. Janco should be in position by now. After he had distracted Eve, he planned to wait outside just in case.

As I searched the mixing room and storage room, my mind tried to reason why the messengers were here. Then I almost knocked over a table filled with pyramids made from opaque glass. I picked one up.

Magic pulsed through my hands. My stomach twisted. I recognized Ulrick’s magic, and even though the opaque glass concealed the glow, I felt my own magic. They were mixed inside the pyramid.

Why? Unknown. An icy wave of dread slammed into me. I set the pyramid on a table before I dropped it. What I did know was Ulrick worked here and could be nearby. Ulrick’s warning back in Ognap replayed in my mind. I can sense you from a distance.

Which would explain why Gressa had this hidden factory. Devlen was a wanted man for his involvement in the ambush on Zitora and me long ago. Since everyone was convinced switching souls was impossible, Ulrick would have to keep a low profile in Devlen’s body.

I yanked off my backpack, tore it open and fumbled for my orb. Potential throbbed as I hugged the glass to my chest. I stood and scanned the darkness.

“Did you enjoy the tour?” Ulrick asked. He stepped from a shadowy corner. A wide smile spread on his face. “Took you long enough to put it together. You’re still oblivious to magic. You walked right past my concealing illusion without noticing a thing.”

“I can feel magic now.”

“So you can,” he agreed without concern. “What do you think of my shop?”

“Your shop? Don’t you mean Gressa’s?”

“It’s more like a family business. We’re working together.”

“And Tama is involved, too.”

“Of course.”

“Why are you experimenting with my messengers?” I asked.

“Come on, Opal. You’re not stupid. And neither is Gressa. She knew you’d eventually stop working for her.”

“Have you been able to duplicate my messengers?” I asked.

“Not yet, but we’re close.”

“Then what?”

Ulrick sobered. “Businesses are more profitable without competition.”

Meaning they planned to kill me once they figured out how to make the messengers. Wonderful.

“I must admit, you surprised me this afternoon. We didn’t expect you to find this location or me. Gressa’s going to be upset.” He shrugged. “But now that you’re here, you might as well stay until I figure out our next move.”

“You can’t force me to stay.” The glass orb in my hands vibrated.

“If I use magic, you’ll just channel it into your orb. But I don’t have to use magic. Can you defend yourself while holding an orb?” He moved closer.

“No, but remember I can siphon all your magic before you get near me.”

“Go ahead.” He stepped.

Through the glass, I reached for his magic and pulled. It resisted my efforts. It wouldn’t budge.

Ulrick pried the useless orb from my fingers. I tried to fight, but he backed away and let his magical power hold me immobile.

Pleased by his surprise, Ulrick leaned close to me and said, “I lied when I said it was a family business. We expanded to include a few old friends.” He turned to the side and swept his arm toward the door. “You remember Tricky. After he offered to share the most wonderful present with us, we welcomed him to the family.”

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