The last light of day disappeared while Kaor tried to understand Leah’s actions. It was one thing to pretend to be shocked, quite another to draw more attention to him.
All thought of running evaporated, like a boiling pot going dry. His hands curled into fists, and he could feel his face turn red. He was afraid to speak, afraid to show the emotion that filled him like a cauldron of fire.
How could she do this to him, after they had shared so much?
Voices came from all around as the empty street filled with people.
You have to run, said a little voice in the back of his mind. The words bounced around his skull but did not penetrate his conscious thought process or even cut through his anger. He had never thought Leah would be capable of something like this. He had imagined being discovered several times, and he’d always imagined her agreeing to come with him.
He knew if they left together, they could find their way in the wide world. A feeling he couldn’t explain told him that leaving alone would be certain death. He knew it in his gut.
“Don’t do th—”
“It’s him!” Leah’s voice cut him off but was drowned out by the ringing gong. “He’s right here. Lights above, save us all! I can’t believe you lied to me! I trusted you.”
Kaor knew he needed to run, but he couldn’t make his feet move. In less than half a second, his life had been turned upside down, going from a pleasant evening to a nightmare.
You bleeding fool, he thought. What can you expect her to do when the law calls for the heads of those who aid rebel mages?
She had warned him to go. He should have disappeared months ago. Could he blame her for saving her own skin?
Even as Kaor despised her and was angry with her, he realized he might have done the same thing in her shoes.
Lights above, he had done similar. He pushed away his memory of the night Mira had died.
If even one of the other East Ridge villagers accused her, Leah would be hard-pressed to make a case. She needed to mitigate the fact she’d been holding hands with a man whose hands had glowedwith the light.
The gong sounded yet again, bringing more people to the doors of their homes.
“It’s that Kaor boy,” said the merchant, his eyes big with possibility but not taking them from Kaor’s knife. Kaor was surprised the man knew his name. Kaor didn’t know his.
“I always knew he was trouble,” Franni Faol said as she joined the merchant. “Didn’t I suspect he might be a rebel? I told you just last week, didn’t I?”
“You armed, Franni?” the merchant asked. “We could split the Emperor’s Gift. That girl can’t capture him alone.” He glared at Leah. “Besides, she was aiding him, wasn’t she?”
“That’s how it looked to me.”
Leah bristled at the insinuation but kept quiet.
“Can’t they see this is insane?” Kaor muttered. “The whole thing is madness.” He could stop them dead in their tracks if he wanted. His hands glowed with an ever-increasing amount of light. He had let go of it, but it kept gathering.
The merchant brandished his knife, as did others behind him, in an apparent effort to scare Kaor. It didn’t work. Now that he was revealed, he had more options at his disposal. The thought of using them made him sad. These were men and women Kaor knew, people he’d known since he was a boy.
With a final look at Leah, he turned to run towards the woods and found the way blocked by Stanner Trachur and others who stood behind him. Jules, Stanner’s wife, pushed to the front of the group.
“Drop the knife, boy,” she said.
“Out of my way.” Kaor brought up his knife but didn’t strike. He knew the moment he did, the mob would take him down. He’d seen it happen.
The gong rang out again.
Would the thing stop ringing? It sounded like a young boy had gotten hold of the mallet and didn’t know that once was all it took.
How many times had Kaor heard that sound over the years? How often had it haunted his recent dreams?
And now it called for him.
Stanner shielded his eyes with a hand as he stared into Kaor’s. He was well-liked and carried an aura of authority that was unique to him as the former mayor of East Ridge.
“Step back from him, Leah,” Stanner said, putting a hand on Leah’s shoulder. Leah’s frown was brief. Despite the discomfort on her face, she didn’t recoil from Stanner’s touch, even though she rarely let other people touch her. She went with his hand as he pushed her back. “There’s no telling what he might do.”
“Use your dagger,” Jules said, her eyes gleaming with the possibility of claiming the Emperor’s Gift. “Do it quick before someone else does.”
“Out of the way or I’ll cut you!” Kaor made a warning slash, his knife held in front of him in a threatening fashion. He’d always liked Stanner, but he wasn’t about to let the old man take him.
Stanner looked from his wife to Kaor. His hand reached for the hilt of his knife, but he didn’t pull it out. His mouth was a thin line, his upper lip curled, making Kaor think he was disgusted, but there was something more as well. It wasn’t fear.
Could it have been anger?
What did Stanner have to be angry about? It was Kaor whose life was in danger.
“You’ve nothing to fear from me,” Stanner’s voice was quiet, but each word was said with careful enunciation, “but you can’t fight everybody.”
Kaor didn’t move as his brain slowly processed the words. It was hard to think with the ever-growing circle of people staring and pointing.
“Let me through and nobody gets hurt.” The light on Kaor’s hands and arms was becoming blindingly bright.
“We’ll let you through if you drop the knife. Do we have a deal?” Stanner’s voice had an edge even though it had not increased in volume. He hadn’t yet taken out his own blade, but he was looking like he might. He could have been keeping his hand there to prevent Jules from taking it or he might have wanted it handy in case Kaor attacked. Jules’s eyes gleamed in a way that made Kaor want to lash out. “Drop it and go, or…”
Stanner left the thought unfinished.
“It is your duty, Stan,” Jules growled. “For Multo’s sake, the boy’s dead anyway. Might as well be us that gets the money.”
Stanner didn’t respond but made a shooing motion with the hand that wasn’t holding down the dagger.
Kaor struggled for words as he looked at Leah, but they wouldn’t come. Every second he waited was one less he’d have to get away.
I should have run when I had the chance. Kaor shook his head and glanced at Leah. Her face was unreadable.
He snorted. Perhaps he’d never known her at all.
“Go boy,” Stanner said, apparently deciding that Kaor wasn’t going to leave his dagger, “before something happens.”
“I don’t mind if you help gather the wood,” Kaor said to Leah, as he took a step forward. If he was hoping to elicit some sign of guilt from her, it didn’t work.
“Don’t tell me what to do, you cursed fool.” Leah’s voice was calmer than before, but her tone was unmistakable. It said it was his own fault.
And wasn’t that the truth?
He had thought he could avoid detection. He had believed he might be different. That he could live among them and hide what he was.
But the light called to him. Always. It wanted to be used. It demanded to be used. Even while doing such a small thing as imbuing a little life into a wilted rose, it had taken over and done things he hadn’t intended, calling more light than necessary and making him hold onto it without realizing it.
It was Kaor’s fault. He knew this but still wished it could have been another way.
Kaor glanced at the growing crowd, it seemed as if everybody on the street had turned out while he had hesitated, though less than a minute or two had passed.
Bobb Kandler stood on the porch of his store, hands on his hips, his mouth tight, and his eyes narrow as he stared at Kaor’s hands. His young son Gregor pushed in front of him and was about to go down the stairs and into the street when Bobb yanked an arm, said something Kaor didn’t hear, and shoved the lad out of sight.
“Run, you fool,” Stanner muttered, “you’re putting us all in danger the longer you stay.”
A horn sounded, piercing the evening and causing everybody to shift.