The following is not the finalised edition. Chapter order and little details may change before book publication. This hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
Minni followed Elrin out of the Cauldron’s filthy alleys and into the more affluent avenues of the working class. They walked at a brisk pace, criss-crossing between the side streets parallel to Merchant Circuit, careful to avoid the attention of guards along the way. It wasn’t difficult when every street they traversed was paved in a new kind of chaos. There were fights over severed dragon limbs, distraught calls for lost loved ones and wailing for the dead crushed beneath rubble.
The faithful were out in force, drawn to disaster like moths to the moon. Religious congregations marched up and down the most devastated neighbourhoods, offering food, singing hymns, chanting or ringing bells to their favoured god. Minni couldn’t understand many of the words in the choral cacophony nor why any god would favour clanging bells, but she was glad that they drowned out much of the screaming from the wounded. The Calimskan Guard was stretched thin trying to keep the peace across such a big city. If it weren’t for the golden shield, the city would have fallen to Uindaarg and his marauding dragons before the day was out.
Was the Guildmaster a necessary evil to protect innocent Calimskans? No. Minni had to put that kind of thinking out of her head. She wasn’t going to let pity bargain her down or tricks of guild law sway her thinking. Now that Inspector Kettna was out of the picture, Minni could finish this the right way. Who knew what hidden schemes the sorceress pursued? She was the daughter of the Archmage after all. The Order of Calim might have sent Kettna to grant the Guildmaster fraternal clemency and protection. A mage couldn’t be trusted to do anything but further their own agenda. Priests weren’t much better in Minni’s experience, yet that was the risk they would have to take.
Minni stepped around a human-shaped mound of ash and began a difficult conversation. “Our best chance to sort this all out is to go to Herder Kleith, don’t you think?”
“Absolutely. But I haven’t forgotten Kettna.” Elrin held Minni’s gaze, looking for understanding or assurance. “We’re all in this together.”
“Of course!” Insisted Minni with a little too much enthusiasm to be believed. “I really think Kettna’s got things under control though. I bet that mysterious mage you spotted was part of her plan all along. Kettna sure has no love for Captain Malek. Nor do you, with good reason. If Malek’s in the Guildmaster’s pocket, the Inspector has to avoid him. She can’t expose anyone until the time is right. None of the guards will believe any ill of the Guildmaster. So the Inspector calls in a favour from an old pal in the magic business. They put on a grand show to abduct the hapless Inspector. She screams and puts up a fight to convince the guards that she’s still loyal, but inevitably she’s hauled off. Not to her peril of course. It’s a classic ruse.”
Elrin gave Minni a sidelong glance. “My mother made a grand show. That was something altogether different.”
“The Inspector ain’t no bardess. What can I say?”
“If that was all an act, where do you think Kettna is headed? Did she give you any hint? You were together when I returned from the dagger. There must have been something said. A place mentioned where we could meet?”
“She didn’t say,” insisted Minni. At least that wasn’t a lie. “Kettna seems like a woman who sticks to her plans though. With Malek out of her hair, I imagine she’d want to meet in the fortress, where she said she’d be safe with the Constable. I’m not so sure about the top of town for you and me though. That’s a lot of blood you spilled back there. And a lot of witnesses too. Word’ll spread faster than fire about you and that blood-hungry blade. Some of these guards might remember my peculiar face and they’d be sure to know yours if they look passed that beard of yours. You’re not going to keep it are you?”
“I don’t know. Do you like a man with a beard?”
“Not your damn beard, Elrin! The dagger. It’s clearly cursed. You’re eyes looked like the bloodstone on the pommel when you were trying to gut me.”
“I’ll control it next time. I’m it’s master. The god inside, Ungx—“
“God?” Minni scoffed. “Who are you to play with gods and claim to be their master?”
“You don’t understand.” Elrin walked faster, side-stepping a bucket line from a well. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“I understand perfectly well.” Minni matched her pace to keep up with Elrin’s longer stride. She was determined to maintain the argument without turning it into a shouting match. Volume never convinced a man of anything. “You thought you could battle an impossible evil riding on a dragon once. How’d that work out?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Now maybe,” said Minni, hitching her arm to his. “But not back there in the Cauldron. That was someone else. Something else.”
“You’re not exactly who you used to be either. Your eyes don’t look like they used to, but I’ve not said anything about that. Nor your scales or claws or who knows what else.”
Minni stopped dead in her tracks. “For example?”
Elrin knew he was on shaky ground. “Well… your temper for one.”
“My temper?” Minni fumed. “You’ve not seen my temper and by the gods you’ll not see hide nor hair of anything else either! I’d not want to disappoint you further.”
A table of cider swillers across the street, guffawed and jeered. A woman walking her child, hurried past covering the child’s ears for fear of what might next spout from the rogue’s tainted tongue. Minni huffed and marched on. So much for not shouting. Elrin caught up but was smart enough not to add anything to the argument.
“The Hall of the Dead is down this way,” he said, pointing down the street passed the tannery. The reek of animal skins soaking in eye-watering concoctions couldn’t have added more to the atmosphere than the stink of their discord. “Maybe we should wait till dark before going in.”
“No. Every moment we waste is a moment too long. For Amber, for the slaves, for the bloody mages on their island. With so many in danger you’d think the gods would lend us a hand.”
“That’s what they call Herder Kleith,” joked Elrin, making light of Minni’s unintended pun. “No better place to get a hand.”
A vague smile was all Minni offered, but her heart was glad to see the man trying to make peace.
“You’re right, it wasn’t funny.” Elrin grinned at his lame humour nonetheless. “Follow me, we’ll sneak around the back. It’s not far.”
Elrin held Minni’s hand on a romantic stroll through a stinking alley in full bloom with refuse. They passed the backend of the tannery and knackers yard where the alley gave up all pretence of being a throughway and embraced life as a meandering waterway. Or more precisely a sluggish drain which carried more effluent than it ever would carry people. It collected filth from slime covered gutters and oozed quietly between the toes of the city. Minni could only hold her breath for so long. The fetid fragrance was so thick she was sure it was eating through her nose. None too soon they came to the end of the open drain where it met the rusted iron bars of the greater sewer system beyond.
“Wait here,” whispered Elrin, climbing the grille up to the street level before rushing across the road to a stack of crates beside a rundown workhouse.
Minni climbed up to watch him and catch the cleaner air from the street. She chuckled at Elrin’s attempt to remain unseen. He looked like a shifty scrounger on the prowl with his rough mess of hair and wild beard. His oddly matched clothes were no help. Anyone peering Elrin’s way would think he stole the worn vest from a corpse and the fancy green breeches from a dandy on the high streets.
With an easy swing of her leg and a push of her arms, Minni vaulted out of the drain and calmly walked over to her unkempt love who was rummaging through a bin of tattered cloth.
“Looking for anything in particular?” asked Minni. “A nice shirt perhaps?”
“You were supposed to wait,” said Elrin, wrapping a square of beige cloth around his head like a cowl.
“Any mouldy boots dumped in there, Master Ragpicker? They’d compliment your outfit quite nicely.”
“Very funny.” Elrin handed Minni a yellow and brown stained square of cloth. “I was finding you a disguise.”
“For me? You really shouldn’t have.” Minni took the rag and cast it around Elrin’s bare shoulders like it were silken finery. “This suits you much better. Now, enough with dress ups, where’s the back door?”
The street in front of the Hall of the Dead was blocked by lines of carts and stretchers. Grey garbed Herders tended the macabre caravan. They waved their wooden crooks and silver censers that puffed out white mantles of incense, blessing the fallen and soothing their families. Any other day, superstitious Calimskans would have avoided the smoke from the crook of a Herder for fear Nathis, god of the grey, shepherd eternal, might mistakenly take the souls of the living. It was an idiotic superstition. If anything, surely a day like today was ripe for a mixup. Eternity was a long time and herding sheep was no easy task. The sheer numbers involved were mind boggling. How could a god keep up with every soul in the world, let alone judge them worthy or not?
While the Nathians were better known for their work with the dead, many in the crowd were injured and begged the priests for healing. Overwrought parents plowed through the queues to present maimed children in blood-soaked bandages. Mourning families wailed as loud as those stricken by injury. Worse still, the silence of the dead was deafening. The grey men of Nathis had it tough in Calimska. When times were good people shunned them for fear of bad luck yet when disaster struck it was to the Nathians that they came for solace.
“They always come around in the end,” said Elrin, hurrying Minni back across the road with rags wrapped over his head and face.
“What do you mean?” Minni took Elrin’s arm to slow him down and give onlookers the impression she was helping another victim of the dragon siege. He really had no idea of how to blend in.
“It’s a saying the collectors have.”
“What about the other temples here? Don’t they bless and bury the dead too?”
“If you’ve got coin, they do.” Elrin frowned at the thought. “But, no matter what funeral you pay for, the body will be interred by us.”
“Us? Oh, so you’re a Nathian now?”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I’ve just been around this place so long. It’s a bit like a second home for me.”
Not a breath after Elrin finished his sentence, he tripped over a loose cobble and stumbled into the alley at the rear of the temple. Minni stifled a laugh as she held him up. Not only did he look like a leper, he walked like a blind man.
“You grow more odd every moment I know you.” Minni wrapped her arm around his waist to prop him up.
“Wait till you meet my Mother,” said Elrin, gathering his balance again and pulling the rags away from his eyes. “Please be kind.”
“Was that an invitation you just snuck in there?” Minni grinned with menace. “Are you going to parade me before your mother? This is getting serious, you shiners sure move fast.”
Elrin stopped in front of a lonely door, searching for the best words to remove him from any trap he’d walked into.
“Think you can tie me down so easy?” toyed Minni, feigning the umbrage of a highborn maiden.
“If you don’t run away after meeting my mother, you might be so lucky.” Elrin gave her a cheeky grin and raised his fist to knock on the door.
Minni seized his hand. “Can you be certain Herder Kleith will answer?”
“No. But, it’s his private apartment, so no one else will answer. I don’t have a key and we’ve got to get in somehow.”
“Who needs a key?” Minni pulled her lock-picking tools from her boot. “Were you always so naive? Or is it something you learned in all those books you read.”
“It’s not naivety, it’s civility.”
“There’s so many words I don’t understand in Calimskan. You might have to explain that last one. No hang on…”
The lock gave a sinister click.
Minni screwed her face up in frustration and held her hands very still. “Speak nary a whisper and don’t for the love of all the gods move. Not a muscle. Got it?”
Elrin froze as instructed, gripped by worry. “I won’t,” he whispered.
“Good thing you’re here. I’d be in trouble otherwise. This is a magic trap with a mechanical trigger.”
“What can I do to help?” asked Elrin, so quiet that Minni had trouble hearing him over the noise from the crowd echoing down the alley.
“I can manage the mechanical trigger, but I need you to disarm the magical trap.”
“How? I’m no mage.”
“You don’t have to be. There’s a ritual sequence I learned from a wise old safecracker while I was in prison one time. It’s all in your face and mood and works on your auric emanations.”
“Soul stuff. What you feel. There’re three combinations. First, bare your teeth and feel anger.”
“Seriously?” Elrin wrinkled his brow. “It sounds far fetched.”
“Once you’ve run across the block to retrieve my charred remains, that’s far fetched. Are you going to help or not? We can’t mess this up.”
Elrin reluctantly did as instructed, baring white teeth from behind his black beard. It was a fearsome sight. Enough to scare a small child at least.
“Good. The next pattern of two has to be repeated until I’m done with the trigger. Tongue poking your left cheek with eyes looking left and feeling happy, tongue in your right cheek with eyes right feeling sad. You have to keep doing it or it won’t work. Start left then move right and back again. You have to start on the left.”
“Really? Who’s left?”
“Your left,” assured Minni. “On the count of three. One. Two. Three.”
While Elrin waggled his eyes and poked his tongue left and right, Minni slowly manipulated the lock. It gave a thunk and Minni gasped.
“What happened? Did I do it wrong?”
“No, no. It wasn’t you. You were perfect. Left then right, the works. I could feel the emotion. You were gullible enough. I just can’t believe you fell for it.”
“I knew it!” Elrin went red, but grinned through his shame. “Tongue in cheek, very funny.”
“You might see through illusions but you didn’t see that one coming,” chuckled Minni.
“To be fair, I did have my doubts.”
“Of course you did,” whispered Minni, sneaking a kiss on Elrin’s flushed cheek.
“Now, I’ve got more doubts.”
Minni thumped him then planted a kiss right on his lips, pulling away before her passion took over. “Now?”
Elrin slowly opened his eyes, grinning he’d been crowned a king. “None whatsoever.”
By gods, Minni loved this man. Flaws and all.
“Good,” said Minni, cutting off their joy with the seriousness of what was to come. “Because what comes next won’t be easy. You have to remember that Herder Kleith has been lying to you. Maybe all your life. You can’t trust him, Elrin. The priest owes us answers.”
“Don’t worry.” Elrin was grim as a man being led into battle. “I won’t be fooled by him again.”
Minni opened the door carefully, keeping her eagerness to interrogate the high priest in check. Jokes aside, she was employing all of her thieving experience to avoid traps; those of the mechanical and the emotional kind. Elrin might be the key to unlock the truth of the Calimskan conspiracy, but she’d seen many a lesser man let emotion poison better judgement.
The front door was well oiled and didn’t make a sound as Minni stepped inside. Her heightened senses spiked with all the new smells inside. It was ever so cool within the building. Compared with the summer heat outside it was like a gust of winter rushed over her skin, raising her scales and giving her a shiver of goose bumps. From the alley frontage of the building, Minni imagined it would be small inside. To her eye it was fittingly cosy, but she could feel a greater sense of space within. Was it her ears that told her? Or was it the taste of the air? She certainly couldn’t see what she felt, but knew it to be true nonetheless. Her senses wouldn’t lie to her, but so many new smells and sensations at once were overwhelming.
Incense was the strongest scent Minni could identify. Frankincense and sandalwood were the solemn backbone, but citrus played across her nose too. It was sweet but not cloyingly so. There were many other scents she couldn’t identify, all herbal. Perhaps balms and oils for consecrating and preparing the dead. There was that too. The smell of death. It wasn’t just a smell but a feeling. A drawing down, a feeling of emptying in the air. A negative space.
Elrin closed the door quietly behind them and took in a big breath in the tiny vestibule. “Ah, I forgot this smell. Incense and books. I love it.”
“If that’s all you’re getting, we should swap noses. This place stinks with a hundred other things and every one of them is trying to overpower the other. Funny how from all of them your nose whiffs the books. I didn’t even notice them, but now you mention it.” Minni sniffed the air again, focusing her mind and sorting through the bounty of information in the air. “There must be a library of tomes here.”
Sure enough there was. The private quarters of the High Hand were small for someone of such a lofty station, but Herder Kleith had made plenty of room for books. Elrin and Minni walked out of the entryway, around a narrow dogleg hall and into a comfortable sitting room walled by bookshelves. There was a bedchamber beyond and an open door to a second narrow hallway that must have linked the rest of the temple complex. One door remained shut.
“There’s no one home.” Elrin turned to leave. “I imagine Kleith is very busy with all that’s going on. We should come back at night.”
Minni shook her head and put a scaled finger to her lips for silence. A serving tray rested on the sitting room table and steam rose from a pot of tea yet to be poured into two waiting cups. Minni drew the sword she’d taken from the dead guard and moved to the side of the room. A floorboard squeaked from behind the closed door. Someone was in there.
Minni signalled to Elrin, pointing to the closed off room. Elrin waved her back, he wasn’t happy that she was baring steel in a temple. Too bad. If this Herder Kleith was fine with keeping slaves, he’d have no qualms about killing any who found out. The priest might be in there praying the hells open up and swallow them whole.
Elrin thought otherwise. He walked right up to the door and politely knocked.
Silence was the only reply, but a shadow moved under the door.
Elrin knocked again. “Is anyone in there?”
“Begone!” commanded a woman’s voice. “This is a holy temple. Steal anything and Nathis will strike you down!”
“Mother?” asked Elrin, pressing his ear to the door. “Is that you?”
“Elrin?” The door clicked and opened a fraction. A wary eye peeked out. “What trick of the gods can this be?”
“Mother! It’s me. Everything’s fine, you can come out. There’s no robbers here. Where’s Kleith?”
“Oh Elrin, my dear! I knew you’d return. The guards said awful things, but I didn’t believe a word. Not my precious boy.” Elrin’s mother emerged from the room with eyes bright as sunshine, beaming upon her son in with pride. “Look at you! You’ve grown so strong! And this mess of a beard. Were you working the docks all this time, then? Ona’s eye, you’re barefoot too, and— Oh, Elrin! There’s blood all over you.” The Bardess stripped off all the loose rags to inspect her son properly. “Are you hurt? The dragons made ash of everything this season. And early too. Even the gods must be confused. The world’s turned on its head, has it not?”
Elrin couldn’t get a word in edgewise to answer any of his Mother’s questions until she spotted Minni. The rogue braced for a shriek of terror. Her beastly visage was not something a mother would welcome into a home. Instead of a scream, Elrin’s mother let out the smallest of squeals and squeezed her son’s hand. “Not only am I blessed with the return of my boy, but he brings sweet company. Come now, Elrin! Your manners, dear. Can’t you see the poor girl is nervous. Her sword is shaking.”
Minni quickly sheathed the blade. What madness had she fallen into? This was no way to meet Elrin’s family. Did his mother truely not see Minni’s draconic taint? Perhaps she required spectacles.
“Mother, this is Minella Ajharra. She’s my, ahh…”
“Employer,” finished Minni, saving Elrin’s awkward pause. “I manage warehouse security for many businesses here in Calimska. The dragon attack has been devastating and your son told me of his connections to Herder Kleith, the High Hand himself. I’m afraid I must apologise, Bardess. I came to seek the priest’s assistance without a thought to the imposition it might cause your family.”
Like a butterfly changing her colours, the Bardess Penellonine altered her expression from the utmost joy to stern suspicion. She didn’t believe Minni’s poorly thought out lie.“Desperate times they are, but who brings a blade to ask for help? Who picks a lock, but to steal? What’s going on, Elrin? You’ve got blood on your clothes for gods sake. If you need money, this isn’t the way.”
Elrin motioned for Minni to sit and she reluctantly did, if only to put his mother’s nerves at ease. “We don’t come for money, but we do come for Kleith. Please, sit with us. There’s a lot to explain. I don’t think you’re safe here.”
Footsteps sounded down the hallway. The brisk yet firm stride of a measured man with much to do. “Sorry I’m late,” he called. “Disaster strikes in every corner of the city. There simply isn’t enough—” The grey-garbed priest stopped mid-stride as he came through the door.
Minni was on her feet, hand on her sword, ready to lunge. Elrin stepped in front of the priest. “Put the damn blade away, Minni!”
Kleith lowered his holy crook and leaned it against the doorframe. The priest gave Elrin’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Let her be, Elrin. I knew this day would inevitably come.” The middle aged man let out a heavy sigh. “I fear not her steel, but the words we must confess this day. We should all take tea together. I’ll fetch two more cups from the cabinet.”
Minni allowed the priest to cross the room for his cups, but watched his every movement lest he lace the rims with poison. Sure as dragonfire that’s what she’d have done to the priest if things were reversed.
The High Hand of Nathis didn’t dally nor tamper with the cups at all. Though he fussed about everything else. First came a plate of biscuits; ginger, cinnamon and molasses judging by the spicy-sweet fragrance. Next a silver spoon for everyone and a small fork for who knows what. He even retrieved a glass jar of boiled candies and set them down at the table too. For a man intent on confessing his sins, he was stalling the catharsis. Afternoon tea wouldn’t get him off the hook.
“We didn’t come here for your catering, priest.” Minni claws extended with her rising anger. “Sit down and tell us why you’re running slaves.”
The air in the room constricted. Herder Kleith looked at his crook leaning beside the door and shot a glance down the hall from which he had arrived. For a moment, Minni thought the priest was going to run. This was not the confession he’d been expecting to make. How many secrets did he keep?