I growled through the gag on my mouth, straining against the ropes chafing my wrists and scratching my arm on the bark of the tree I’d been propped against. My aching jaw only added to my bad mood. Beside me, Hale had on a long-suffering look that said only too clearly it was my own fault that I got boxed in the face by a Green. Maybe I shouldn’t have called him a puddle of poodle puke, but how else was I supposed to fight back when he had both my hands held tight in his monstrous one?
Huffing, I turned away from Hale. I should’ve just left him up the tree. Then I wouldn’t be in this mess.
At least Teek and the pegatiger hadn’t been recaptured. I’d worried that my vigilante pegapiglet would come swooping in and get caught in another net, but apparently her irrepressible sense of justice only extended to other pegas.
“I told you we shouldn’t have just left that kid in a net.” Bulldog spat on the ground and glared at Hale. “Let me take care of him the right way this time.”
“Are you stupid?” The Green smacked Bulldog in the shoulder, sending him stumbling sideways. “We go around killing kids and we’ll lose some of our highest paying customers.”
“No one will find a trace,” Bulldog said with a relish that made my stomach turn.
“And what about when his master comes looking for him?” the Green snapped. “Finch is already watching me. We need to come out the good guys in this story, and that means we’ve got to tell a good story.”
He went over to the cold remains of their campfire. Digging his hand into the ashes, he scattered a handful over me and Hale, then smeared a few dark gray streaks across our faces.
I wished I knew why Hale’s eyes went so wide and scared, or why the Green’s cronies laughed like they’d already won.
An hour later, Hale and I were trudging down the road I’d run on so quickly the day before. The four thugs surrounded us, Color-Clothes having woken up with a wicked headache that made him particularly spiteful. My shins were bruised and barked from his kicks.
A smoky smell hung heavy in the air as we drew nearer to the city. It made my throat burn and my eyes water, but with my hands tied and a gag in my mouth, I had no way to get away from it. Above the wooden stores and homes, a dark cloud spread across the sky. I began to have an inkling of what I was getting blamed for, and I didn’t like it at all.
“Perfect,” Ferret said gleefully. “Looks like the Flaming Phantom struck again last night.”
I glanced at Hale. Still gagged, he couldn’t give me any answers, and I couldn’t tell if the watery look in his eyes came from tears or smoke. He tracked the plumes of smoke in the sky down to their source, and his jaw tightened around the gag.
The town raged in chaos. People ran back and forth, some carrying water, some carrying news. I heard the words “barracks” and “food stores” traded between them. My stomach turned, and not just from the smoke.
“We caught them!” Bulldog roared, his words blending into the melee of shouts. “We have the phantom and her accomplice!”
At first, no one paid him any attention. Then his words sank into the harried crowds. One person took up his shout, then another and another. Before long, it seemed like the entire town was denouncing us as the Flaming Phantom, whoever that was.
We turned a corner, and the source of all the smoke came into view. A long, low building, obviously built to hold the local company of the king’s army, smoldered and glowed with fiery coals. Most of the roof had fallen in, and one of the walls was partially collapsed. Men and women ran back and forth with buckets of water. Steam hissed upward as they doused the remaining hot spots.
Directly ahead of us, a tall, trim man stood with hands behind his back as he spoke to a short and scrawny recruit. Color-Clothes stepped out in front of the rest of us. I got the feeling he fancied himself the leader, though I’d have put that role to the Green or Bulldog.
“Captain Finch!” Color-Clothes said dramatically. “We have found the arsonist!”
To my surprise, the tall, commanding-looking soldier stepped back with a neutral expression on his face, while the short, skinny boy in front of him turned toward us with his jaw working.
“I don’t have time for your theatrics right now, Gent,” the boy snapped. I couldn’t help staring. Captain Finch had to be only sixteen or seventeen, and barely taller than I was. Dark circles hung under his eyes. Ash coated his uniform. Light gray streaks stood out against his umber skin.
The Green stepped forward. “Then maybe you’ll have time for this.” He held out his hand. All I could see was that he held some sort of small trinket, a white, flat stone with a leather string threaded through a hole at the top.
Finch went the kind of still that happens on the edge of an explosion. His eyes flicked from the trinket to the Green’s face. “Is this a confession, Markel?”
“It’s not mine.” The Green—Markel—jerked his head my direction and spewed lies without blinking. “Found it around her neck. You’ve been saying it for days, Finch: the Phantom had to have a contact in the town. Who’d have thought it would turn out to be the healer’s boy?”
Hale stood pale and still, not even trying to defend himself. I jerked against my ropes. I couldn’t talk, but I did my best to make enough noise through my gag to get the boy captain’s attention. I shook my head hard, until Bulldog smacked me.
Finch walked over to us. Close up, he looked even more exhausted. “My men were nearly burned in their beds tonight,” he said, his voice gravelly with smoke and with anger. “I’m not going to let that go easily. Hale…” Finch sighed and looked away. “I wouldn’t believe it of you, except that Colormaster Freesia came to me yesterday. She said you’ve been sneaking out at night ever since the attacks began. She told me what you said when she confronted you.”
My gagged protests choked in my throat. I glanced sideways at Hale. He stared at Finch, a blank sort of horror in his face. No way—Hale? Sheepish, clumsy Hale? He couldn’t actually be involved in this. Before I could get over my shock, Finch barked an order at the soldier standing just behind him. “Take these two to the holding cell. I’ll question them later.”