The man nodded, blinking slowly, and then he just stood there as the other crew surrounded us with their crates. I couldn’t help but stare at the blank expression on the man’s face.
“Go,” Perry whispered under his breath as he leaned in between us. Bottles rattled from the crate Delano and Kieran placed in the wagon. “And may the gods be watching over you.”
“May the gods be watching over you,” Casteel replied, slipping around Perry.
Casteel nudged my shoulder as he brushed past. I turned, glancing briefly at Perry. “Be careful.”
“I will, my Queen.”
Turning, I kept pace with Casteel as we quickly slipped into the cloaked and jacketed mass of workers streaming in and out of the Rise gate. Scanning the crowd, I knew better than to look behind us for Delano and Kieran. They would find us. I focused ahead.
The closer I got, the…worse the smell became. Sweat and oil mixed with the scent of spoiled fish. I knew it would only grow, increasing due to all those forced to live in the small homes below the Rise, nearly stacked on top of each other, where the sun didn’t seem to penetrate. The stomach-churning smell wasn’t the only thing I noticed. The condition of the Rise caught my attention. There were tiny…fissures throughout the massive, thick structure. I’d never seen anything like it and couldn’t quite think of what could have done that kind of damage.
“Look at the Rise,” I said under my breath, and Casteel’s head lifted the slightest bit.
He said nothing as we crossed through the gate with the throng of workers entering the city. He led us toward the narrow streets of the business district, where markets crowded the road covered with the waste that horses and mortals alike had left behind. Awareness pressed against my back, and I knew that Kieran and Delano had found us.
A horse-drawn wagon passed, the driver hunched over and unaware of the small child racing along the cobblestone sidewalk, carrying a stack of papers. His red-cheeked face was stained with soot, and his blond hair was slick and unkempt as he rushed into the street—
Casteel’s hand snapped out, catching the child by the scruff of the neck and hauling him back.
“Hey! Let go of me, sir!” the boy shouted, holding onto the newspapers with everything in him. “I ain’t done—” He quieted as the powerful hooves of the horses and wagon wheels pounded by inches from his face. “Shit,” the child whispered.
“You’re welcome,” Casteel replied, placing the child on the sidewalk.
The kid whirled around, his eyes wide. “Thank you, sir! I would’ve been flattened like me momma’s bread.” He turned wide eyes to the street.
“Flattened like his momma’s bread?” Delano whispered behind me, and I fought a laugh.
“You can thank me by telling me what happened to the Rise,” Casteel said, his hand slipping inside his cloak. “To cause the cracks in it.”
The child’s brows knitted as he stared up at the shadowy area of Casteel’s face. “It was the ground, sir. It rocked here, and I heard from Telly at the fish stand that the ground shook all the way to the capital. My momma said it was the gods. That they’d been angered.”
I didn’t know what would cause such a quake, but I knew it hadn’t been the gods.
“When did this happen?” Casteel asked.
“I don’t know. Like a month or so ago.” The boy shifted from one foot to the other. “How do you not know when everything was shaking?”
“I suppose I was sleeping,” Casteel replied, and I rolled my eyes.
The boy stared at him in disbelief, but the look quickly turned to wonder as Casteel withdrew his hand from his cloak, dropping several coins atop the stack of papers. The child’s little eyes widened.
“Next time, try looking both ways before running out into the street,” Casteel said, stepping around the kid.
“Thank you!” the little boy yelled and then took off.
“Just so you know,” Kieran drawled a few seconds later, “he did not look both ways.”
“Of course, not,” Casteel replied, walking so his body was between mine and the street.
“What do you think caused the quake?” I asked as we moved deeper into the city, cutting down an alley overflowing with trash. I tried not to breathe.
“I really don’t know.” Casteel glanced at me. “I’ve never heard of a quake that extended from here to Carsodonia.”
“Well, if the gods were awake and had to smell this alley,” Kieran began, “I understand why they’d make the ground shake.”
“It’s not all like this,” I reminded them. “The people who live here don’t have a choice, other than to make do with what they have.”
“We know,” Casteel said quietly, leading us onto another packed, filthy street.
Our pace was quick as we navigated the congested streets and neighborhoods, working our way around vendors, others hurrying about their daily tasks, and those who appeared to shuffle aimlessly in their ragged, limp clothing, their faces drawn, and skin ghostly pale. They reminded me so much of the Craven that my stomach turned. I wondered and then feared that they were suffering from a wasting sickness that often arrived in the night to steal the lives of those sleeping.
A sickness I now knew stemmed from the Ascended’s blood hunger.
I wasn’t the only one who stared at the poor souls. They also caught Kieran’s and Delano’s attention. The wolven’s dismay and suspicion clouded the already stifling streets.
Casteel and I ditched our hats but kept our hoods up as we reached the inner parts of the city, while Delano and Kieran left their cloaks behind for whoever needed them. Dressed in all black and equipped with bloodstone short swords, they looked like any guard one would see in a city within the Kingdom of Solis.
The difference between the district near the Rise and the area which sat nestled below Castle Redrock was striking. This was where air flowed between spaced-out houses, and alleys gave way to winding courtyards and gardens. Where electricity powered restaurants and homes instead of oil, and fewer wagons and more carriages occupied paved, even streets free of waste and litter. The air was cleaner, the sidewalks and lawns maintained. We were forced to slow our steps here unless we wanted to attract the attention of the guards who patrolled, keeping those who did not need protection safe from those who did. Passing couples dressed in fur-lined cloaks and jeweled gowns headed into shops and climbing into carriages, Casteel folded an arm around my waist as I hunched my shoulders. I imagined with a cursory glance, it looked as if Casteel were trying to keep me warm while out for a stroll under the canopies of bushy ferns and overhead walkways.
Ahead, the castle resembled dried blood caked in the daylight as we crossed the wide, tree-lined road and entered a heavily forested park at the foot of the secondary wall that surrounded Castle Redrock. Once shielded by the woods, Casteel and Kieran led us through the maze of trees and wild berry bushes. No more than half an hour later, the outer wall of Redrock became visible.
“Are we going to scale the wall?” I asked.
Casteel chuckled. “That won’t be necessary, my Queen. We will simply walk through it and into one of the old passageways underneath.”
I glanced at him and then at Kieran, thinking of the inner wall around Castle Teerman and the section near the jacaranda trees. My head snapped back to Casteel. “Are you seriously telling me a part of the wall is down here, too?”