Today's Reading

Now that I don't have a "weapon," she lowers her hands, but she doesn't turn away. Her eyes narrow as she peers at me, then glances into the darkness at my back. "You're alone."

"I am."

"When coins started showing up, my cousin thought Weston and Tessa were making rounds again. You're not Wes, are you?"

"No." I stare into the shadows, wondering if anyone else is hiding among the trees. My heart hasn't stopped pounding since she appeared out of nowhere.

"Well," she continues in her quiet voice, "rumor says Weston Lark was really the king's brother, anyway. Prince Corrick."

"I've heard those stories."

"One of the rebels caught him," she continues. "In Artis, I think. He was dressed as an outlaw. Mask and all. The king's army had to rescue him."

Rumors about that are everywhere. I glance at the sky, which hasn't begun to lighten, but it won't be long. It'll be dawn soon, and I need to get back. I hesitate, considering, then swing the ax into the stump. The noise echoes in the woods, and I wince. The girl's eyes flare, and she inhales sharply, but I drop a few coins on the stump, then turn away to walk.

My shoulders are tight, and I brace for her to send up an alarm—but I forget that people in the Wilds tend to look out for each other. Instead, she jogs through the grass to walk at my side.

"If you're not Weston Lark," she says, "what's your name?"

"It doesn't matter."

"Your mask is red, anyway," she chatters on, heedless. I was thinking she might be fourteen or fifteen, but now I'm thinking she's even younger. "The red makes you look like a fox. I heard Weston's mask was black."

"Go home."

It doesn't work. "Some people think your coins are a trap," she says, striding along beside me. "My uncle calls you—"

"A trap!" I swing around to study her. "How could coins left in the middle of the night be a trap?"

"Well, some of the rumors said that Prince Corrick was pretending to be Weston Lark so he could trick people into revealing the smugglers." Her eyes are wide and guileless.

"So he could execute them." I snort and keep walking. "That feels like a lot of effort for a man who can execute anyone he likes."

"So you don't think that's true?"

"I have a hard time imagining the brother to the king was secretly dressing as an outlaw to catch smugglers."

"Well, he's called Cruel Corrick for a reason. Or do you think the king is the vicious—ouch!" She stumbles, then grabs my arm for balance, hopping on one foot.

She's making so much noise that I have half a mind to jerk free and leave her here. But I'm not heartless. I swallow a sigh and look down.

She's barefoot, holding one foot high off the ground. A streak of blood glistens along the pale stretch of her heel, black in the moonlight.

"Is it bad?" she's saying, and there's a hint of a tremor in her voice.

"I can't tell. Sit."

She sits, folding her leg over her opposite knee. Blood drips into the grass below. Something gleams in the wound, either a sharp rock or a bit of steel.

She grimaces. "Ma will kill me."

"You made so much noise, the night patrol might beat her to it." I drop my pack in the grass, then crouch to study her injury. "You should've gone home."

"I wanted to know who you are. My cousin won't believe I caught you."

"You didn't catch me. Hold still." I pull the muslin-wrapped biscuits out of my pack and unwind the fabric. I hold out the food to her. "Here."


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