The following is not the finalised edition. It hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
Minni was at the edge of her patience. How long did they have to wait? Gods! It was muggier than frog’s hollow and the sun was a right bastard. Still the guards forced Elrin and Minni to stand in the heat while they shot insults from the shade of Silk Gate. Too many dolts in one place had Minni hankering for a fight. If she got one more slap on the rump from a halberd or a prod from a spear she’d visit murder upon the greasy pigs. A quick side step, a lunge and a twist then she’d have a pink-faced guard’s dagger in her hands. Five men would be leaking crimson before the others realised she was gone. Of course, she couldn’t do that. Minni had to stick around and keep Elrin safe. Maybe Kettna too. If she was lucky.
The shadows bent with boredom before Captain Malek and his well-armed men arrived with an empty prison wagon. Watchman Zaylish gave a crisp salute as did the other guards. Malek barely acknowledged the contingent of regulars, glaring at the sorceress as if his gaze alone might prevent her from escape. He rode a dapple grey warlander through the press of guards to confront Kettna.
Captain Malek gave the Inspector a knowing grin and a casual salute, but did not dismount. His polished plate armour flashed in the sunlight as he leaned forward in his saddle to appraise the sorceress. The magic of the golden shield tinted the light just enough to paint the steel armour as if it were gold. A trick of light, yet it gave the Captain an undisputed air of authority. That was, apart from his swollen nose and black eye.
“That nose looks a right mess. You need it seen to.” Kettna was not impressed in the slightest. Her hand rested on the hilt of her sword anxiously rubbing the bloodstone pommel.
“Is that an apology?” Malek noted the mage’s sword and his lips curled.
The sorceress flushed with anger. “Don’t you ever rest?”
“Who can rest when dragons come calling? You’ve an unholy habit of turning up in the thick of it. Know anything about what’s going on?”
“More than I care to. And not enough compared to you, I daresay,” said Kettna. “Why all the fancy armour? You’re a little overdressed to meet me.”
“As much as it might wound your delicate pride, Inspector, you’re mistaken. I didn’t dress with you in mind.” Malek pointed a mailed finger at the lone red dragon circling within the golden shield.
A pair of akiri were flying after it, trying to get close enough to tangle the dragon’s wings in some kind of magic net. The silvered strands stretched between the avian men, impeding their manoeuvres and slowing their flight. It wasn’t long before the hunted became the hunter once more. The dragon rounded on the akiri with a jet of flame and they dropped from the sky before they could release their net. One fell as silent ash over Castle Roost and the other fell screaming in a smoking trail of burning feathers.
“I dressed for the hunt,” said Captain Malek, scowling at the unfortunate demise of the akiri. “But now you’ve returned, I must forgo that peril.”
“No need,” said Kettna. “I’d never keep you from testing your metal against a dragon. Please, have at any peril you desire. I’m perfectly capable of my task here.”
“Some perils loom larger than dragons,” suggested Captain Malek, regarding the sorceress and her prisoners with suspicion. “Speaking of which, how did you manage to capture the no name? Was he hiding with the mages on the Isle of Solitude? A favour for your mother, eh? Should have known, I suppose. You lot love your secrets.”
Kettna grinned at that. “Says the man with a foreign crest hidden beneath a Calimskan surcoat. Such expensive armour gives you away. Who do you really serve, Malek?”
“What, this?” The captain smirked, pulling the surcoat aside, proudly showing the crest Kettna had keenly spotted. Malek’s steel breastplate was embossed and gilded with a hilltop castle crowned by the sun and an arc of gold over a clean horizon. “Is it not familiar? My loyalties rest with Calimska.”
“Where the gold is,” sneered Elrin. “How much does the Guildmaster pay you to kill the innocent? Or do you do it for your own pleasure?”
A shadow of anger crossed the captain’s face, but he didn’t bite. Malek pointedly ignored Elrin’s questions and examined Minni. “What have we here, Inspector? There’s no dead letters on notice for a tainted wench like that. What’d she do?”
“You should be more worried about what I’ll to do if you keep leering at me.” Minni locked his stare and took his measure. Ash on him if he didn’t turn away.
“He’s the one who tried to kill me!” Elrin issued the accusation with enough volume to put a town crier to shame. “And those two behind. I’ve not forgotten your faces. You’re all cowards without a shred of honour!”
Elrin wasn’t going to miss his opportunity to point the finger his tormentors. He wanted everyone to know his innocence. That was the burden of being pure of heart. There was a desperate belief, against all evidence, that a noble heart beat inside everyone. The more righteous you were, the greater your expectations of the world. The more trustworthy you were, the more trusting you were inclined to be. Elrin still thought the law of the land would protect him, if only the right ears heard his story.
Once upon a time, Minni was like that too. From the cage of her innocence, she’d spoken the truth and was ignored. She’d begged for mercy and was damned a sinner. When she’d screamed for help, she was choked into silence. That was before Minni realised true justice came when you seized it with your own two hands. And how bloody they become.
Captain Malek didn’t care about truth or justice. He drew his sword and pointed it at Elrin. “You dare call me a coward? You killed my men and ran like the guilty dog you are. I should lop off that mongrel head of yours right now.”
Elrin’s arms and chest bulged, straining against his bonds with indignant fury blazing in his eyes. The magic around his bindings flickered and sparked. Kettna quickly murmured some spidery syllables and several tattoos on her hand glowed, strengthening the restraints.
“Put your sword away, Captain!” chastened Kettna. “These are my prisoners, not yours. With all here as my witness, the bounty is mine. I insist we go straight to the Constable, without any further delay.”
Captain Malek sheathed his sword and changed his tactics. “Of course, Inspector. Forgive my outburst.” He offered the sorceress his mailed hand. “Ride with me. A woman’s propriety is too easily tarnished by ill company. We wouldn’t want people to think you’re a criminal too.”
The Inspector refused his hand. “If a woman’s propriety is paramount, I shall ride beside the wagon driver. He at least looks like the honest sort.”
“You’d pass up an offer from the good Captain Malek?” Old Watchman Zaylish was dumbfounded. “What’s wrong with young ladies these days, eh? He’s the one we should call a hero! Burn your titles and melt your shine. Never a noble came cut from finer cloth.”
The sorceress flushed red. “I beg your pardon?”
Captain Malek withdrew his hand and laughed off the Watchman’s praise, feigning humility. “You’ve got it wrong, Zaylish. The true hero here is the Inspector. She’s the one who got the shield up and saved Calimska. I saw her fix the golden gutter with my own eyes, as battered as they be. Not only that, the Inspector slipped through this very gate, refusing our protection to help the Order of Calim when things were most dire indeed.”
“Is that so?” Watchman Zylish raised his eyebrows with newfound respect.
“Such bravery does not go unnoticed by the Guildmaster,” said Captain Malek. “You’re not to slip away again, Inspector. Our great leader insists on giving you his thanks in person.”
“Isn’t he busy holding up the shield?” asked Kettna.
“A true hero of every season,” said Watchman Zaylish, lifting his eyes to the Golden Shield, sincerely enamoured by the man who swaddled Calimska from danger every year.
“My instructions are clear, Inspector. The Guildmaster insists upon your swift attendance.”
“Then clear the way with my escort, Captain,” ordered Kettna, enjoying the chance to tell the guards what to do without objection. “We’d not want to make the Constable nor the venerable Guildmaster wait.”
While Captain Malek assembled his comrades of the Nightwatch at the head of the column, Watchman Zaylish barked commands to the guards of Silk Gate, honouring the Inspector with a contingent of sturdy looking men to march with the prison wagon. With every earnest face added to the escort, Minni saw her chances of escape diminish.
The Inspector made full use of her newfound authority. Climbing up beside the wagon driver she stood on the seat and lectured the guards.
“Know well that any man who damages my catch will suffer a curse. When the moon rises, you shall not. Your wives and strumpets may thank me, but you will surely weep. Know too that all who escort these prisoners safely to Castle Roost shall take home a purse of gold. Now load my prisoners into the cage and see they are respected.”
Minni and Elrin were promptly ushered into the cage as if it were a royal carriage. The black iron bars and blood-stained timber floor were a far cry from the refined comforts known to a King and Queen, but Minni had never been locked up with such well-mannered consideration. The rogue couldn’t help but admire the sorceress for her ingenious manipulations. Nothing motivated a man’s compliance more than a threat to his manhood or the promise of riches.
Once her prisoners were secured, Kettna made herself comfortable on the bench beside the driver and signalled for the procession to begin. They rolled through the silk markets and past the corpse of the fallen red dragon. The slaughter yard stench was overwhelming. Butchers cut open the belly of the beast with a cruel sawtooth blade at the end of a pole. Its entrails spilled onto the already slick cobbles. Axemen clambered atop the dragon’s muscular body hacking limbs while carts and barrows lined up, ready to wheel the precious body parts home for the highest bidder. The auction had already begun at a respectable distance from the blood. Two chalkboards were filled with an extensive list of available anatomy for sale and a crowd of richly dressed merchants jostled to win the rare prize parts.
Calimska’s elite would be eating fine-cut morsels of dragon flesh at sunset while alchemists and mages would be contriving magic potions and powerful enchantments. Even now people mopped and sponged the cobbles for a share of the precious dragon blood. Nothing would be left come sunup.
Minni half expected the sorceress to stop the wagon so she could get in on the action. However the mage had turned away from the macabre scene. Was she ashamed? Or was she calculating the fortune in gold she was missing? Minni couldn’t figure the woman out. Her face could be so cold it was hard to read. The sorceress still hadn’t given Minni or Elrin a sign of assurance. Kettna hadn’t confided a single quiet word, not even a wink or a smile. Minni tested her bonds again and they were as strong as ever.
“Ploughing mages!” grumbled Minni. “I’d prefer a sturdy pair of iron cuffs any day. How’s an honest thief supposed to slip a spell?”
“Save your strength,” said Elrin, glad for a distraction from the passing butchery. He placed his warm hands over hers but Minni didn’t want comfort, she wanted to escape.
Minni had flexible wrists and fingers. She’d wriggled out of rope before. Once her skin broke from the chaffing, her blood might just lubricate another escape. Minni tried every twist and turn she knew, but nothing could outsmart Kettna’s enchanted bindings.
“Look how bright it’s shining now!” Elrin was so impressed by the magic, it made Minni’s resentment of the sorceress all the more bitter. “The magic is feeding on your movements. You won’t break them till the inspector sees fit to release the spell.”
“So you’re an expert on magic now, huh?” Minni let loose her frustration. No one would hear her angry whispers over the clamour of the horses, marching guards and the heavy wagon bumping along the cobbles. “Whose to say she’ll release the spell? The bitch hasn’t said a word. We shouldn’t have trusted her.”
“If Qarim trusts her, so should we. She’s Daniakesh’s chosen.”
“What kind of logic is that? Dragons say she’s a good sort, so you go ahead and trust her? Dragons are the reason we’re in this mess. We never should’ve sought out the Dragon Choir.”
“She’s shown us no reason to doubt her,” argued Elrin. “It’s all just an act to get us inside the Castle.”
“And what if it isn’t?”
“Then we fight our way out,” said Elrin, misguided certainty chiselled upon his face.
“With one dagger eh? Maybe.” Minni laughed to herself. “That sure would be something.”
Cracking skulls was fun, but she missed her blades. If she could get her hands on Kettna’s magic braid of ribbons she could force the mage to unlock the pocket dimension. Better still, she could just snatch Kettna’s sword. Disarming a mage wouldn’t be too hard. Minni could make that blade sing till it the cobbles ran red. “Elrin, it’s time to see this for what it is. Didn’t you hear a word she said back there? Kettna’s hauling us to the Constable, if not the Guildmaster himself. That’s a monster gamble. You still think Herder Kleith is our best bet?”
Elrin nodded in grim agreement. “Kleith knew about the Dragon Choir and the secret message confirms he knows all about the slaves. He must be aware of more. Maybe he knows about these other bloodstone weapons too. He knew about my Father’s dagger without even seeing it.”
“And what about your father, Elrin?” she asked as gently as she could manage. The thought had been eating at Minni for some time. She had to air it for Elrin to consider. “What if Kleith’s the one behind all of this?”
“Who? The High Hand of Nathis? That’s ridiculous!” The very idea was a slap in the face. “Why would Kleith have sent me to find help?”
“Guilt drives a man to do many strange things. Did I ever tell you about—” Minni caught a whiff of smoke and cut short her story. “Do you smell that?”
“What, the dead dragon? Not anymore. Can you still smell it from here? But the breeze is blowing in the other direction.”
“No, not the dragon. Smoke. Look up ahead.”
The high street was blocked by a barricade of broken carts, barrels and a burning wagon. On one side were guild merchants with a frustrated knot of Calimskan guards and hired muscle. A mob of poor folk were on the other side, yelling anti-guild slogans and hurling rubbish and rocks over the barricade.
Dignity, not Poverty!
Honest pay, Equality!
Another rallying cry pulsed beneath to the beat of a lone drummer.
No Ink, No Justice.
No Ink, No Justice.
Fire bells rang from an adjacent street, challenging the chants of the disenfranchised. It wasn’t enough to drown them out or slow them down.
“They’re in fine form,” said Minni with a wry grin. “Can’t say I disagree, but if the bucket brigade don’t quench that fire soon, the whole damn city’ll burn to the ground.”
Elrin studied the road ahead with that curious spark of amazement in his sweet brown eyes. “Don’t worry,” he confided, leaning close and whispering in Minni’s ear. “It’s all an illusion. Kettna must be weaving a spell over us all. See how her thumb is on the bloodstone. This must be some kind of diversion to help us.”
Had Elrin been hypnotised by the sorceress? What he said was madness. It all looked real to Minni. She could smell the damn fire! Even taste the ash and feel the hysteria in the air. Captain Malek and his Nightwatch guards sure as hell thought the riot was real. They rode into the crowd, but had little success in dispersing them. The mob fell back, always just out of reach. Then a swarm of angry citizens emerged to back them up. Poor folk boiled out of the side streets, brandishing washing poles and thumping buckets to spook the horses.
It wasn’t long before Captain Malek and his men retreated to the prison wagon. “We go around!” he commanded, sweat beading on his face. “Let the bastards vent some steam. We’ll send a platoon down from the Roost once we return. That’ll sort the rabble from the worthy.”
The prison convoy retreated west down Silver Circuit. It was a fair distance along the ring road before Malek found an alley wide enough to accomodate the wagon. They turned south, slowly rising up the Calimskan hill towards Castle Roost once more. However, this route rubbed past ragged alleyways to the west, each puckering open like dirty wounds into the poorest section of Calimska. The sorceress was courting trouble. Minni wondered how well the Inspector knew her own city. There were some streets in the Cauldron even Minni would avoid.
Unfortunately, just as the street was veering east again, Malek called a stop. The way ahead was blocked by a fallen building. A temple dedicated to Ona no less. Two marble pillars had toppled and half the roof had caved in, spilling stone and hundreds of blue tiles across the street. The statue of Ona, had toppled from the apex of the temple’s dome roof. The Mother of creation lay beside a bubbling fountain with a broken leg. While one arm cradled a basket of fruits, the other pointed to the sky in the south where the fortress of clouds loomed over the Great Dividing Range. An ill omen if Minni had ever seen one.
“So is that an illusion too?” asked Minni, pointing to the devastated temple.
“No. That’s real.” Elrin stared sadly at the destruction. “That’s not by accident either. Do you think Uindarrg’s minions have a bone to pick with Ona?”
“Why would a dragon give a damn about a temple without gold?”
“Exactly. Mating season drives them mad for gold. Yet these dragons don’t fit that behaviour.”
“So, they’re after chaos. Like and invading army with Uindarrg as the general. That fits.”
“But, all the other buildings nearby are fine. The fountain isn’t damaged. That’s not chaos. It’s like Ona’s temple was targeted. Why destroy a temple when you could destroy the water supply? I just don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to, Elrin. Not everything’s a riddle to solve.” Minni crossed her legs and leant against the iron bars, watching the guards march beside the turning wagon. “You remember my friend Tikis, the drakkin?”
Elrin’s face paled a little and his eyes flashed with recognition. “Tikis! By the gods, how could I ever forget him? Did he survive the battle against the Jandans?”
“He did. That and more,” assured Minni, glad to think of her drakkin friend and how he had saved her life. “Tikis once taught me a drakkin saying that helped me a great deal: Life is simple.”
“What? That’s the pearl of wisdom?”
“It is.” Minni grinned, imagining the contortions Elrin’s mind must be going through to discover the hidden meaning.
“How could that possibly help anyone, let alone be true?”
“It made me laugh when all I could do was cry.” Minni squeezed Elrin’s hand, more for her own comfort than his. “Don’t go dying on me again, Elrin. Death is complicated.”
Elrin wiped away a stray tear that skimmed down Minni’s scaled cheek. His eyes welcomed her soul for they knew loss just as she did. He knew the worth of joy and the struggle for happiness, because he knew pain and had danced with death. Elrin embraced her, accepting Minni for all the broken pieces she was and loving her just the same. Come what may, they had each other.
The wagon jostled deeper to the west and over the bump locals affectionately called ‘the brim’. This was the enclave of the Calimska’s less fortunate; the Cauldron. Once across the threshold it wasn’t just the cobbles that were uneven. Drunken architecture leaned where it could or crumbled, spilling yellow bricks and rotten beams. Broken buildings were picked apart and from the bones of the dead came a ramshackle rebirth of multi-storey hovels. Festering rubbish heaped up the side of one such construction, swamping the alleyway beside it and spewing out onto the street.
As if all this weren’t enough to slow the prison wagon, bedraggled urchins ran in front of the convoy, screaming with glee at their arrival. After the initial squeals settled down, they contrived to join in song while they threw pebbles at the guards.
Cut the coat,
Stab ’n’ choke.
No name, No name.
Shiv the guard,
Run the yard.
No name, No name.
“Aw, how sweet! You’re an inspiration for the wee ones,” said Minni, half joking and half proud.
“Maybe they’re singing about you,” Elrin countered.
“I suppose I can retire then,” she said, distracted by the high pitch whistles from each building they passed. Minni moved to each side of the cage, peering up at the rooftops and high windows. The prison wagon was attracting a lot of attention. “Do you hear that? Tell me it’s another illusion.”
“The whistles?” asked Elrin. “They’re real. All those people staring at us are real too.”
“Eyes I can handle. It’s the signals I’m worried about. We’re marked.”
“An ambush I suppose. These poor folk could split your bounty around the Cauldron and still live a life richer than they ever imagined. You still think it’s part of Kettna’s plan?”
Elrin looked doubtfully at the Inspector. She sat with perfect posture of course, thumb on the bloodstone, squeezing the hilt like a lifeline. “If she’s not in control of this then, what do we do?”
“We sit tight.” Minni listened to the various whistles, committing the signals to memory. They weren’t random alarms. There was a pattern, a language. “The riffraff will make a fine distraction.”
“I think we need a broader plan than that.”
“I’ll slip us out of this cage. You take us to Kleith. If the sorceress is with us, she’ll follow. If not, she’ll get whisked away to the fortress. Kettna doesn’t care about the slaves. Mages gaze at the stars, they don’t look at what falls in the gutter.”
Elrin didn’t have anything to say to that, but his quiet was not agreement. Give it time. He’d soon see the mage had other priorities.
Malek thundered up to the wagon on his powerful steed to warn Kettna. “It’s not safe to go any deeper. I’ve not seen a clear street south and likely won’t anytime soon.”
The sorceress regarded the Captain with suspicion. “Then why’d you take us this way? Surely there’s a southern street coming along soon. There’s no time to back track.”
“Listen, Inspector. The Cauldron’s a skag’s warren. Not far up there’s an empty square. See? It’s got just enough room to manoeuvre the wagon around. Otherwise the wagon’s a liability in the alleys. We’d have to march the prisoners on foot. We’ll be ambushed for sure and any who survive will be ransomed or slaved off.”
Elrin pressed his face against the bars and wasn’t happy with what he saw ahead. “Don’t do it! It’s an ambush! Can’t you see them all?”
“Shut it, no name!” Warned the wagon driver. “Lies won’t save ya.”
Minni pulled Elrin away from the bars and hissed in his ear. “What are you thinking? Let the mage have her fun.”
The grey haired driver spoke with more consideration to Kettna. “Mine eyes’d best a hawk, Inspector. Ain’t no ambush up there and we need room to turn. Gods bless us, we’d best be outa the cauldron afore we get cooked alive. The Captain speaks true.”
The sorceress could have frozen each man with her stern regard. She checked the way ahead for a time. If Minni were to judge the mage’s acting ability it was far too long a stare and with too much scrutiny. The men made no such judgement and waited on her next words as if she were a goddess incarnate.
“Execute the turn,” ordered Kettna. “Tarry and you tempt my wrath.”