A second bolt cracked against the rooftop. Tahl launched into a sprint to follow Nia onto the next roof over.
A volley from the crossbows followed.
Niada yelped as one skimmed past her head, taking a few raven strands with it. “How did you manage to make things worse?” she cried.
Tahl vaulted over the peak of the roof to hunch on the other side, hoping that removing himself from sight would slow down the bowmen below. “You’re the one who wanted me involved!”
“Yeah, to help me fix things! Not to bring half Orrad’s guard after us!”
Offended, he put himself directly in front of her as she crested the roof and slid down beside him. She squeaked in surprise, clearly not having expected him to be so close. He pressed his fingers to his chest in a gesture of hurt. “Who helped you get out from under them, exactly? They almost had you.”
“We aren’t out from under them, stupid. They’re right there!” Nia ducked reflexively as a bolt arced overhead.
Below, someone shouted, and an argument broke out. Whoever had fired didn’t have permission. It seemed their reckless shot would earn them an earful—and hopefully buy Tahl a little time.
“Come on,” he whispered, motioning her to the next roof. It was a longer jump, harder to make without a running start, but he bounded across the gap without difficulty and then spun to catch Nia. She didn’t need his help, though she landed hard. They put two more rooftops between them and the crossbowmen before he motioned toward a narrow alley at the back of a building.
Together, they descended into the shadowy space.
“We need somewhere to hide,” Nia whispered.
Tahl arched a brow. What did she think he was doing? He bit back a retort and motioned for her to follow him, instead.
The alley snaked farther toward the edge of the city before it finally opened into a familiar yard. A round stone cap covered a sewer access tunnel in the middle of the weedy cobbles. He braced a foot against it and pushed. It didn’t budge.
“Help me with this,” he ordered as he dropped to the ground, braced his toes against the uneven paving stones, and pushed with both hands. Nia knelt to do the same, grunting with exertion. Perspiration just rose on his brow before the stone shifted. With the crust of dirt broken, it moved more easily, but he didn’t fool himself for a second into thinking they’d be able to move it back. Tahl stopped with the stone halfway across the opening, swiped the back of his hand across his brow and plucked a loose pebble from the ground. “Down.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Nia muttered. She slid over the edge and disappeared into the gap.
Tahl followed, too aware of the sound of people approaching. They stood a chance of escaping in the sewer, at least, but how easily the guards seemed to track them through the city made him uncomfortable. He’d never had that difficulty before.
They hurried down the tunnel until the light from the opening was no longer visible, then walked a bit farther, trailing their hands on the walls to find their way. Once he was certain they wouldn’t be spotted easily, Tahl pushed a tendril of power into the pebble in his hand. It took a soft, warm glow, but he kept it faint. If anyone looked into the tunnel, a light could be visible. If he kept it faint enough, the mage-light wouldn’t illuminate much beyond the ground beneath their feet.
“Think we made it?” Nia asked softly as they padded onward.
“Hopefully.” Tahl’s sense of direction rarely failed him, and he’d set a path toward the eastern side of the city. He’d explored a good portion of the unused sewers that had fallen short of expectations and ended up paved over, and he was confident when he guessed they could get close to the docks, but he had a stop planned along the way. He rubbed his mage-light with his thumb and fought back a frown. “Let’s go a little farther. Once we get around a corner somewhere up ahead, I think we should sit down and have a proper look at this knife.”
She made a soft sound of assent and said nothing more.
The tunnel carried on for some time before they found a branch. Tahl shifted their path north and continued for a while before he took another eastern branch. Not long after, he lowered himself to the ground and allowed himself a sigh.
Nia frowned. “You okay? It seems like that run took more out of you than usual.”
“Fine. I wasn’t planning on escaping any guards today, but at least they weren’t Elite.” He withdrew the knife and poured a little more magic into the mage-light, letting it brighten before he pushed it into Nia’s hands. “Here, hold that.”
She leaned forward, curious, as he unwrapped the blade. After the unpleasant shock of touching it before, he chose to keep it on the cloth. That shock was what made it all the more confusing that he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
Now that he inspected it close up, he saw it was a nice blade. Plain, but good quality. Ordinary of appearance, yet clearly unusual. Ordinary blades didn’t bite with magic when you touched them.
“See anything strange?” Tahl asked. He didn’t expect she would. Noticing things was what kept him alive and made him a good thief, but he wasn’t arrogant enough to think nothing could escape his attention. Especially when magic was involved.
Nia shook her head. “It’s just a regular knife.” She reached for it, then hesitated.
Tahl raised a brow. “What?”
“What happened when you touched it before?”
He snorted. “It hurt. It was like shuffling across a carpet and then poking someone to make a spark, times ten.”
Now her face twisted with bemusement. “When I touched it, it just made me feel creepy-crawly. Should I touch it again? Is it safe?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I get the feeling it’s a lot more special than it looks. None of the mages at the academy are able to imbue objects with magic, you know. They call it a Lost Art.”
“Can’t be that lost, if someone’s still making magic knives.”
“That or this is a lot older—and more important—than we thought.” He studied the knife for a moment longer, then folded the wrappings closed once more. “I know this is going to sound weird, but I think the guards are able to follow it somehow.”
Nia tilted her head. “Like sensing it?”
“No, I don’t think so. I didn’t feel any mages in their group, and even I don’t really pick up anything odd about it. But they might have an artifact that lets them know where it is. I don’t think they’d pursue us so with this much determination otherwise.”
She sat back on her heels, rolling the mage-light between her forefinger and thumb. “Why do you suppose they’d have something like that? Or be after a plain old knife?”
“I don’t think they are,” Tahl said. “If they’ve got something like that, I suspect they’re looking for something else. We may have just tripped their alarm by mistake.” He had a good idea of what sort of magic-imbued item they might be looking for, but he’d keep that to himself. If there was any way to sense the crown from outside the vault-turned-office he’d stashed it in, their headquarters would have been discovered by now.
“Then we definitely want to give it back.” She stood up and dusted off her knees.
He blinked twice and rose after her. “Really? You seemed like you hated that idea.”
“I do, but I hate the idea of getting caught worse.”
Tahl couldn’t help but laugh. “Fair enough. We’re halfway to the docks now, but we’ve got one thing we need to stop and get before we move on.”
“Really?” Nia asked. “What’s that?”