Asti Rynax couldn’t sleep. The bedroll wasn’t the problem. He’d slept plenty of nights in jail cells, road ditches, even trapped inside a wooden crate. The problem was sleeping on a hot wooden floor in the single-room flop, his younger brother, brother’s wife, and crying baby just ten feet away behind a thin cloth. He craved his own flop, his own space, without families, babies, or smoke.
Asti sat up, smelling the air.
Definitely smoke. And not from the oil lamps.
Asti sprang to his feet. “Verci. Wake up.”
“What, what is it?”
Verci was out of the bed, crossing over to Asti in a flash, despite being naked. Asti’s eyes went to the slight paunch his brother was getting. Married life was taking its toll on his normally lean body. “You’re right.”
“It’s just the Greenfields’ kitchen,” Raych mumbled from the bed.
“No, it’s too strong,” Asti said. He glanced back at Verci. “Put something on.”
Verci waved him off, taking another smell. “Much too strong.”
Asti touched the door. It was warm. Cautiously he cracked it open. The hallway glowed with crackling flames. He dashed back over to the kitchen and grabbed the bedroll and blanket.
“Blasted saints,” Verci muttered. “Raych, wake up.”
“Get up. Get the baby.” Each word was like an arrow. Verci grabbed his pants off the back of a chair and pulled them on.
Asti held the blanket over his face. In the hallway the flames were licking up the walls and ceiling, wooden support beams already cracking. Asti swung the bedroll at the fire, beating it down. Useless. The smoke was getting thicker, the fire hotter, despite his efforts.
“Can you get to the stairs?” Verci called.
Asti pushed forward. The stairs leading outside were only eight steps away. Eight impossible steps. He could race past the fire to reach them, if he went right this moment. The stairway was engulfed, but he could leap down the flight. He would reach the bottom with a few singes and roll on the ground when he landed, snuffing out his clothes if they caught flame on the way down. He could do it, and be outside and safe in seven seconds. He imagined the whole plan in an instant, his body tensing in anticipation.
Verci could do it too, if he called out, told him to run, to go now.
Raych and the baby could never make it.
He beat down the instinct to run.
“No chance,” Asti replied. The fire filled the hallway, racing along to block him from the apartment door. Lungs and eyes burning, he beat a clear path back and slammed the door shut.
“How bad is it?” Raych asked. She was out of bed, wrapped in a loose dressing gown, caramel hair framing her pretty face, with the baby clutched to her.
Asti could barely speak through hacking coughs. “Very,” was all he managed. He shoved the bedroll under the crack in the door, blocking the smoke that was starting to pour in.
“How are we going to get out, then?” she asked. Her voice cracked with fear.
Asti didn’t answer, but he heard a slight snort from his brother. Verci covered it with a cough, but Asti knew exactly why he laughed: Verci never walked into a room without immediately finding every way to get out.
Verci went over to the trunk by the bed and opened it up. While he rummaged through it, Asti pulled on a shirt and boots and grabbed his pack. Everything in the apartment that he owned was in the pack.
“Plan?” he asked Verci.
“That window,” Verci said, pointing to the one by the stove. “But not yet.” He pulled out an empty pack from the trunk.
“Verci, what are we—” Raych started.
Verci tossed the empty pack to Asti as he went over to Raych.
“Give me Corsi and get dressed,” he said. “We have to move quickly.”
“Quickly?” She looked stunned, but relinquished the baby to Verci.
“Put that on, Asti,” Verci said, crossing over to the kitchen with the baby. “Wear it across your chest.” Asti did it, and Verci put his son into the pack. He tightened the straps on the side so the baby was snug, close against Asti’s body.
“Verci Rynax, what the blazes are you doing?” Raych asked, pulling on a cotton dress.
“Keeping our son safe,” Verci said. He turned to Asti, “Get the window open and get out there.”
“If you think I’m going to let my baby . . .”
Verci went back to the trunk. “We need to climb down from the window, Raych. You can’t do that while carrying him.” He pulled on a shirt and grabbed another pack.
“Then you carry him!”
“I’ll be helping you, love,” Verci said. He threw a few more things into the pack. Smoke was filling the room. “No time to argue.”
Asti went out the window. There was a slight ledge, only a few inches, just enough for him to stand on. Above him there was only smoke and darkness; he knew both moons were roughly half full, but he couldn’t see them. The street below was chaotic, people shouting and pointing, running around in their nightclothes while the fire crackled all around. Directly below him was the canvas awning of locksmith shop, stretched wide and tight.
“Awning, slide, street?” Asti called to Verci.
“Right,” Verci said. “Move.”
“Hold on, little man,” Asti said, rubbing the head of the baby. For his part, he was quiet, his big blue eyes staring up at Asti.
Asti sat down on the ledge, his feet a short drop from the top of the awning. Keeping one hand on the ledge, he dropped off, using his arm to keep his full weight from hitting the awning. Once his body was on the canvas, he let go, sliding down over the lip of it. A second later his boots hit the dirt. He stumbled forward, almost needing to fall into a roll, but he clutched at the baby and lurched backward, keeping his balance. Several people on the street cried and cheered.
Up on the ledge Raych cried, “I’m going to break my neck if I do that.”
“No, you won’t,” Verci said.
Asti looked back at the building. The whole place was on fire, smoke pouring out the windows. Verci lowered his wife onto the awning. Her eyes were locked on Asti, focused on the bundle strapped to his chest. Asti looked at the baby again, who was gurgling and smiling.
“He’s fine, Raych. Come on.” Asti held out a hand, though he knew it was a meaningless gesture. Verci stretched out, easing Raych down the awning until she was as far as he could get her without stepping on the awning himself.
“Ready?” Verci called.
“Do it!” she said. He let go of her hand, and she slid off to the ground. Her landing was sloppy, almost falling on her face before Asti caught her. Raych gasped and clutched at Asti. A moment later she was fumbling at the straps, desperate to get the baby out of his pack. Verci slid down, landing on the ground with practiced grace.
“That’s the whole place,” Asti said. The locksmith shop and the apartments above it were all burning.
The shop next door was burning as well. And the one next to it. The fire spread down Holver Alley as far as Asti could see. Every building was wood and plaster, pressed next to each other, nothing to stop it all from catching.
An old man grabbed Asti’s shoulder. “Look at that, Rynax! That’s magic fire, isn’t it? Has to be!”
“No, no,” he said, coming up with an answer that was somewhere between fabrication and gut instinct. “Magical fire always burns hotter, with blue and white flames.” Asti knew hardly anything about magic, but that was more than anyone else in Holver Alley. His word might be enough to quell wild rumors about mages starting this.
“Where’s Win?” Verci asked, looking around the crowd. “ the girls?” Asti glanced about. Winthym Greenfield wasn’t anywhere, nor were his wife and daughters.
“Did they get out on the other side?” Raych asked, holding her baby close to her chest.
“No chance,” Verci said. Asti knew the question was ridiculous, but bit his tongue. Greenfield’s shop was built right up against a solid brick wall, the back of the row houses on Kenner Street.
“They must be trapped,” Asti said. The shop windows were dark, covered in iron bars. No way to see in or break through. Asti touched the door of the shop. It was still cool.
“Asti, what are you doing?” Raych cried.
Asti tried the door, but it was locked. Of course it would be. “Verci, can you . . .” he called out, but his brother was already at his side.
Verci looked at the lock carefully. “Win’s very good,” he muttered. “It would take me at least five minutes.”
“No time for that,” Asti said. He scanned the crowd. Raych was in the center of his vision, screaming at them. Far behind her, towering over the crowd, was just the person he was hoping to find. Julien Kesser, the biggest bruiser on Holver Alley.
“Julien!” he called. The big man pushed his way through the crowd, Asti meeting him partway. “You all right, Jules? Your house all right?”
“No,” Julien said, his wide, sad face covered in ash and soot.
“I’m sorry, Julien,” Asti said. “Win Greenfield and his family are still trapped.”
Julien nodded, and charged without further prodding. Verci scrambled out of the way as Julien smashed his shoulder into the door. It splintered and cracked.
“Asti Rynax, what in the name of the blasted saints do you think you’re doing?” Helene Kesser, Julien’s cousin, had come up right behind him, grabbing his wrist tightly. Her face and were covered in ashes, black hair a tangled mess, and bare arms scraped and bleeding. “I barely got Jules out of our house. Don’t you dare have him—”
“I just need the door open,” Asti said. He glanced over at Raych, still crying at Verci to come away from the burning building. “Keep everyone else out, Hel. Especially Verci.”
“How the blazes—”
“Just do it,” Asti said. He took off his pack and handed it to Helene. Without another word, he pulled a cloak out and took it to the well spigot nearest Greenfield’s shop. He pumped it hard, but only a trickle of water came out. While he was doing that, Julien broke the door off its hinges with a loud crunch. Smoke poured out through the open frame.
Asti took a deep breath, put on the damp cloak, and ran into the shop. He could hear Helene yelling from outside, telling Julien not to go in after him.
Asti couldn’t see anything; thick smoke filled the shop. Eyes shut, cloak over his face, he went by memory to the back counter. He didn’t need to see to find his way; it was five steps straight, and then three to the right to the door leading to Win’s workshop.
“Win!” he called out. He could barely hear his own voice over the roar of fire. Blindly he found the door to the back room, and gave a silent prayer that it would be unlocked. He pushed his way in and tripped over something on the ground.
The fire blazed throughout the workshop, but on the floor the smoke was thinner. He had tripped over Greenfield’s body. Winthym lay flat on his face, breathing shallowly.
Asti shook him. “Win, come on.” Asti shook him again, but he didn’t wake.
Through the smoke, a hand touched Asti on the shoulder. Verci came crawling in, stopping right in front of Win’s body.
“What are you doing?” Asti shouted at his brother.
“Same as you,” Verci said. The ceiling crackled and creaked above them.
“Fine. You get him out, I’ll—”
“You’ll nothing.” Verci pointed to the stairway to the Greenfields’ rooms, blocked by the fire. “You can’t get up there.”
“Get him out! Maybe I can—” He got to his feet.
“There’s no chance, Asti!” Verci yanked him back down. A moment later the ceiling came crashing down in the middle of the workroom, bringing fresh flames from above. One timber knocked Asti on the arm. Verci grabbed the damp cloak and beat out the fire on Asti’s sleeve.
“We can’t leave them!” Asti shouted over the screaming blaze.
“No one is alive up there! We need to get out now!”
“Help me!” Verci draped Win over his shoulder, and Asti did the same on the other side. They traced the steps through the black smoke, back out to the street. Julien came over and took Greenfield from them. They all hurried away from the blaze, dropping to their knees once they were clear. Asti took several deep breaths of sweet, cool air, while Verci hacked and wheezed next to him.
“Verci Rynax, how dare you . . .” Raych started.
“I’m fine, Raych,” Verci said, even if his cough belied that. He reached up and cupped her face tenderly. Her eyes welled up with tears.
“You are not fine, that was a stupid, reckless—”
“I’m fine as well, you know,” Asti said. He left his brother and went to where Julien had laid Greenfield on the ground. Asti knelt down and touched Win’s head and chest.
“What you think, Rynax?” Helene said, hovering over him.
“He’ll probably have a blazes of a cough, but I think he’ll live,” Asti said. He looked back up. Every shop and house on the east side of Holver Alley was on fire now.
Their shop was on the east side.
“Where is the blasted Fire Brigade?” Asti muttered.
“Don’t know,” Helene said. “Don’t think we can count on them now, can we?”
“Right,” Asti said. The crowd stood staring at the fire, people screaming or crying, but no one doing a blasted thing. “Julien, take Win to Kimber’s Pub over on Frost. Doc Gelson is usually deep in the cider over there all night. Hel—”
“Don’t think you can order me and my cousin around, Rynax,” Helene said, emphasizing her point by shoving his pack back in his hands.
“I’m not ordering, Helene!” Asti snapped at her. “I’m asking for help.”
“Asking sounds a lot different.”
“Blasted damn saints, Hel, the whole alley is burning down!” Asti’s guts were churning; he fought down the bile forcing its way up his throat.
Helene grit her teeth. “What you want, Rynax?”
“Get people away from the fire,” he said. “Make sure Raych goes.”
“I’m not gonna be your blasted runnin’ girl, Asti,” Helene said. “You know I’m worth more than that.”
“I know,” Asti said. “But I don’t need you putting an arrow in anyone tonight. Not yet, anyhow.”
“Right,” Helene said. Julien had Win picked up in his massive arms, looking to his cousin for her cue. “If you do, though . . .” She let it hang there.
“Wouldn’t call on anyone else.”
Helene nodded and went into the crowd, telling people to head over to Frost. People started shuffling away. Asti went back to Verci and Raych.
“Raych, get out of here, go over to your sister’s,” Asti said. “Come on, brother.”
“Where are you going?” she asked him, grabbing her husband by the arm.
“We’ve got a shop down on the other end, case you forgot,” Asti said.
Verci nodded, touching Raych’s hand. “Every crown we have is put in there.”
“Right,” she said, resigned. She glanced back over to the locksmith shop, now completely ablaze. “Don’t do anything else so stupid as that, though.”
“I’ll do all the stupid things,” Asti said. “Come on.” He raced down the alley. His brother was right at his heels. He didn’t need to look behind to know, he could feel it.