Hamal was cold, and he didn’t like it. It snowed in King’s Barrow every winter, but this wasn’t normal, all this white on the ground.
It had been snowing since last night, which he spent in the Kladis Tunnel beneath Scarlet Road. The flamemakers liked the tunnel, so it was usually warm down there, even when it snowed. It had been warm last night, and it would be warm again tonight—as long as the flamemakers still claimed the territory. You never knew what would happen in South Barrow. Nothing ever stayed in the same hands because of all the fighting.
The flamemakers fought with the weathermakers, and the jewelers fought with everybody. Jewelers needed goals, and when nothing good presented itself, they sometimes chose bad goals just for something to do. Sometimes the Kladis Tunnel was a battlefield, and those were the dangerous nights, because the king’s soldiers would come to put down the riots. They would arrest every person they could get their hands on. Hamal had lost a few friends that way. One was killed after he landed a solid punch on a soldier’s jawline. Another time, two of Hamal’s friends—Rinny and Fen, both flamemakers—had taken off into the night, running as fast as they could, which wasn’t very fast at all apparently, because they had ended up facedown on the ground as the soldiers beat the resistance out of them.
Hamal was lucky that night. He had reached the tunnel a couple of hours after he normally did, and by then, the soldiers had already broken up the fighting. Hamal crouched down and watched as about a dozen men were chained hand and foot, tossed in the back of a heavy wagon with bars over it, and taken across the river, where they would be sold. Hamal heard that flamemakers were in high demand across the river. He didn’t know if the rumor was true, but it seemed true.
Some men preferred slavery to street living, but that was only the case if you had a good master. Some masters made street living look simple and easy. Hamal had heard horrible stories from men who used to work for masters who made them suffer for things that didn’t seem important.
Hamal had had a master once—a good man named Richart. Though they had started off as master and servant, Richart had become Hamal’s closest friend. He had taken good care of Hamal for ten years, but then he died and Hamal hadn’t been able to save him. Richart’s son had been angry, so very angry. Hamal still shuddered when he remembered how they had found Richart’s body and how the son had responded, demanding that Hamal heal him.
But Richart was dead. He had been dead for hours.
So Hamal lived on the streets now, but he didn’t mind. The men typically liked him, and there were many benefits to living with flamemakers, the warmth being one. He could put up with hunger much more than cold. There wasn’t much he could do about the cold, because he wasn’t a flamemaker—or a weathermaker. Weathermakers were crazy. They didn’t even notice when it snowed, and they seemed to think about ice the way they thought about flowers. It was a thing of beauty to them.
He pulled his coat tight about him. At least he had a coat. And he had boots, too, though the toes were wearing out, and there were holes in the heels. But at least he had them. You were thankful for any kind of boots in crazy weather like this. He hunkered down as the wind picked up and blew snow ghosts across the street. That was what he called them—clouds of snow, driven off the drifts by the wind.
Hamal was hurrying, and his head was down, and the wind was blowing, so he didn’t see the coach until he nearly ran into the back of it. He stopped so fast that his boots skidded through the snow, and he wobbled, arms flailing, to get his balance. As he righted himself, he stared at the back of the coach and reached up to rub his bare head in confusion. The night sky was thick with clouds and the lighting along the street was poor, but he knew that emblem on the back of the coach. He couldn’t remember the name of the family now, but Richart, his old friend, had made him memorize the emblems of all the lords of the king’s court.
“You never know when you will need this information,” he had said, tapping the side of his nose. He always did that. Whenever he gave instructions, Richart would tap the side of his nose, as if that were the source of his words. “One can never be too careful in North Barrow. We have our own kind of thief here.”
What was a North Barrow coach doing in South Barrow at this hour of the night? And it was snowing besides. The driver must be very lost.
The people in North Barrow were wealthy and powerful—the king lived in North Barrow. East Barrow, meanwhile, was home to merchants and other working-class men; all the shipping yards were in East Barrow. West Barrow was the scholars’ district. Richart used to say that in West Barrow, you couldn’t toss a rock without hitting a student or a school. The nation itself was called King’s Barrow, and this was the city of King’s Barrow, the city of the king, and everyone was proud of it.
If this coach truly was lost—and of course it had to be; why else would it be here? Perhaps they would offer Hamal a coin to give them directions. He had been paid for such small jobs before. People who lived in the other barrows rarely entered South Barrow, the poor district. There were few jobs here and few businesses that offered anything of value to the wealthy, so it was almost a guarantee that if any of the rich folk did enter the barrow, they would eventually need to stop and ask for directions.
He was about to walk around the coach to talk to the driver, when the door on the right-hand side opened, and a man was tossed out onto the street. He hit the snow with a deep groan, the kind of groan Hamal was familiar with—a teeth-grinding noise of intense pain.
Two men jumped out of the coach after him. They were wearing armor, Hamal thought, but it wasn’t the armor of the king’s soldiers. The king’s men didn’t wear black armor; they wore polished silver armor that was so clean and bright that you could see it even at night. These men would have been like shadows but for the snow on the street.
One of them carried a large hammer. The other had a drawn sword. The man in the snow was moving a little, but only a little. Hamal could hear each breath the man took. He had fluid in his lungs. He had been badly injured.
The soldier with the hammer murmured something to his companion with the sword, and they both laughed. The man with the sword crouched beside the injured man on the street.
“You want a message, my lord? You are the message.” He then straightened up and put the tip of his blade through the fallen man’s chest. It was a very sharp weapon, or the soldier was very strong; either way, the blade passed through the chest without any sign of resistance until it hit the street on the other side.
The dead man’s hand came up and almost seemed to caress the blade. Then his arm flopped back into the snow and was still.
For a moment, Hamal didn’t know what to do. Part of his brain told him that these men were worse than the king’s soldiers. Another part told him to hold still and maybe they wouldn’t see him. The snow played with people’s eyes. Sometimes, it hid things that otherwise would have been visible. He realized his hands were shaking, but he thought it was probably from the cold. It was very cold out here, and the dead man was lying on his back in the snow—that could not be pleasant for him.
The man with the hammer turned and saw Hamal. The hammer lifted. “You there.”
Hamal swallowed hard.
“Yes, you. Tell everyone you see that this is what happens when the House of Kanyan is defied.”
Hamal suddenly remembered the name that went with the emblem on the coach. Kanyan. It was one of the most powerful houses in the city. They were in good standing with the king. Or they were in good standing with the king, Hamal thought.
The swordsman snickered, as if the hammer-wielder had told a good joke.
“Don’t forget!” Hammer-man insisted. “The House of Kanyan.”
They climbed back into the coach and drove away. The driver snapped a whip at the horses, and the coach slid through the snow at a speed that wasn’t safe.
Hamal stared after them until the coach rounded a corner.
“I don’t think those men were lost,” he decided and then looked at the “message” they had left bleeding in the street.
The man wasn’t moving. Hamal cocked his head and listened for a heartbeat. The wind was loud and insistent tonight, and so he had to move closer. About four steps away from the man, the familiar sound of a heart finally reached him, but the beat was faint and growing fainter. They had certainly killed this man. He was dying rapidly.
Hamal rubbed his hands together and cupped them to his mouth, blowing hot air into his fingers. He hadn’t done this in a while, and most of the wounds he treated now were burns. His friends the flamemakers weren’t injured by fire of course, but they could be injured by lightning from the weathermakers. The two elements were different, Hamal supposed, though it seemed a little odd to him why they would be. Both produced heat. Just lightning produced something more. And sometimes he thought it seemed very angry.
He pulled up the man’s blood-drenched tunic and laid his hand on the wound. The open skin was warm against his fingers, and beneath his touch it began to shift, responding to Hamal’s gift. He sealed the vessels back together—that was always the first step, to stop the bleeding—and then he began to repair the tissue. The human body was like fabric; it often needed sewing. There were multiple broken bones and more bruises than he could count, but he wouldn’t worry about those—not just now, out in the middle of the street, in the snow. He could fix all of those later.
The blood tried to speak to him, but he ignored it. He was busy. The bones tried to start a conversation, but he ignored them, too.
The initial process didn’t take him long. He was usually quick. But as always, he left a scar. He wasn’t that talented of a healer. Some healers could leave the skin as fresh as an infant’s, but even when the cut was small, Hamal had never been able to make the skin perfect. He was good with bones, but skin? There were certain things he couldn’t fully heal because of scar tissue.
The man didn’t awaken, but that was normal. Brushes with death could leave the mind a little . . . absent for a while. The body needed time to recover.
Hamal looked the man over. “I need better lighting,” he muttered.
There was blood all over the face; he could see that much, despite the shadows of night and snow. The eyes were swollen. The man had been hit repeatedly. The real damage, however—besides the sword through the chest—was the man’s right hand. Hamal understood now why that man in the black armor had been carrying a hammer. The hand was just destroyed. Every bone broken—not just cracked, but beaten into shards. Why beat a man’s hand this way? Especially if you were just going to kill him later? It seemed rather rude.
Hamal lifted his head and frowned up at the clouds and the falling snow. It was cold. He was cold. Standing to his feet, he stared down at the man and listened to a heartbeat that was stronger now. “Good. You’ll be fine, won’t you? I’m sorry about the scar.”
On the other side of the barrow, there was a mission that took in the weak and injured. They fed them, clothed them, and let them heal. They had good healers working there. Hamal had once seen them heal a man’s foot that was turning black and stank with gangrene.
But the mission was next to King’s River, the massive body of water that cut the city in half—it was blocks and blocks away from here. It would be better to take this man to the Kladis Tunnel, Hamal decided finally. The tunnel and the warmth offered by the flamemakers were only five or six blocks north of his current position. That was a much easier distance.
But how to get him there? Hamal was not a strong man. He had small hands and small arms, not good for lifting anything, especially not a dead weight like this man was going to be. Richart used to tease him and say, “It’s a good thing you’re a healer, because you would never make it as anything else.” And it was true. After his removal from Richart’s house, Hamal had tried to find work, but no one was interested. Most houses in North Barrow already had at least half a dozen healers on their staff—men and women who had been born in the house, so they were at an advantage—and like Richart said, Hamal was too small to do anything else. He had been willing to do anything.
Then the king had died, and no one in North Barrow had wanted to hire anybody new. So Hamal sometimes went and helped at the mission where they were careful with him and never let him have any of the tough cases. It was true that he was a little slow in his thoughts. He knew this. He became confused easily. That was true, too. They were kind to him at the mission, just as the flamemakers were kind, and they gave him only the easy cases—the scrapes and bruises. Never the broken bones. Never anything with lots of blood—of course, most of the blood cases died before they could reach the mission. If you were going to be doing any fighting, it was best to have a healer as a friend.
Hamal crouched down next to the body. “My lord,” he said, remembering what the soldier had called this man. “I’m going to drag you. I’m sorry about the snow. I’ll work the frostbite from your hands when we get there.” He paused. “If you get frostbite.”
He crept around to the man’s boots and took hold of the cuffs of his trousers, one hand on each pant leg. “Here we go,” he called over his shoulder. He stood up as best he could and commenced dragging the man down the street. Soon he didn’t feel the cold anymore...