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 and Elrin were marched through Calimska’s gates like pigs for the slaughter. Kettna didn’t whisper any assurances in the tunnel. When they emerged inside the city walls, the bitch didn’t even flinch when a squint-eyed guard spat on Elrin. Another bucket-head slapped Minni’s rump with the end of his halberd rousing jeers and laughter from his comrades. Minni would have delighted in rearranging their ugly mugs, but the sorceress did nothing. She was cold as moonfrost, her eyes as distant as the stars. Who knew what deceits she was planning?
No matter how hard she’d tried, Minni couldn’t trust sorcerers. It wasn’t that she thought magic was bad. It’s what they did with their power, lording it over everyone. Hedge wizards and witches were half mad most of the time, but at least they were humble. For them, magic paid for the food on the table. Mages had their towers and libraries. They hoarded wealth and kept secret knowledge.
Kettna was the epitome of a snobby mage and had all the perks. They said Kettna was just a novice, but the woman strutted about with a star-spangled magic cloak. Her green robes might have been a little frayed about the edges, but it was nothing the family shine wouldn’t fix. Minni conceded that making clothes for Elrin was charitable, but so was Kettna’s thigh-high hemline after the spell. Elrin sure had himself an eyeful. Hells, Minni had too. Who could look away when those milky white maiden’s thighs were soaking up the sun?
Not the crowd of guards, that’s for certain. The sorceress was a prize heifer at the market now. Some authority she’d have when the dolts were staring at her pins and appraising her gait. Guards could only handle one idea at a time.
Minni wasn’t fooled. She’d heard all the gossip about Calimska’s new darling. Kettna was born into wealth and never had to want for anything. Did she work to get her rank? Course not. Her family must have been corrupt given her instant rise to power. Inspector Kettna; a title made for a mage’s delicate consideration. It was gifted to her just like the bloodstone sword. The sword matched to Elrin’s dagger.
Like for like. That blade was fated to be Minni’s. Just like Elrin was. When the time was right, the rogue would see to it the blade was looked after as it should be.
That time wasn’t now. Not with the cursed mage hair tangling her damn wrists in front of her. And not with a stink of fear-stained guards surrounding them, spears and halberds at the ready. The Calimskan fighters were soiled by grime, dried blood and soot. They were a mixed bunch of stupid. Some were slack-gobbed with confusion, others wide-eyed with excitement, or fear. Elrin, Minni and Kettna were a fortunate spectacle on a day that was out of their control. Is that why so many guards surrounded them? No. There was something more. These guards were united by a common purpose. They were stalling for lack of knowing what to do next. What were they waiting for? Or who?
Time would tell. It always did. Even so, Minni was impatient for the telling. She’d need to light a fire under the inspector to get things moving.
“What’s with all this?” Minni yelled at Kettna, implying she was in control of the guards. “You promised a fair trial!”
“And so you shall have it,” assured Kettna, staring down her nose at Minni.
“Ash and lies are all you shiners are good for!” Minni spat on the cobbles. “These mongrels’ll swing us from the walls. You tricked us!”
The Inspector made a magic sign and tightened Minni’s bindings. Minni yelped with pain as her wrist bones crushed together. “They’ll do no such thing, lest they wish the Guildmaster’s ire upon them. And you’d do well to hold your tongue, assassin. Lest I make you bite it off.”
Minni didn’t conceal the spite she felt boil behind her eyes, but she held back from kicking the sorceress square in the face like she wanted to. As insulting as it was, Minni didn’t want to spoil the ruse. Not yet. One of the guards, a man with a neck as wide as his thick head, thought to add to the insult with his idiot laughter. Nothing was stopping Minni kicking him where it hurt. She could sidestep that halberd and nail the buffoon, but before she could claim such satisfaction, the inspector took charge of the situation.
“You there,” commanded the sorceress, her thumb caressing the bloodstone and her voice imbued with magic. “Be silent!”
The guard’s mouth clamped shut obediently. His comrades took note, gripping their weapons with white knuckles.
“Who is in charge of this gate?” Kettna demanded, infusing the question with magical authority. “I require an escort to the castle, not a bunch of gorkers!”
A grey haired veteran pushed through the barricade of guards. “Captain Sarn’s dead, Inspector,” said the older guard. Dried blood smattered his neatly groomed beard and a fierce intensity loomed behind his eyes. “I’m in charge till the Constable says otherwise.”
“Then see to it your men file up and ready their weapons. We march to Castle Roost. It’s not safe waiting here.”
The greybeard laughed at Kettna’s order and was joined by his comrades in the insult. “No need to worry, young lady. All’s in hand.”
“Of course, where are my manners.” The guard exaggerated a formal bow, prompting more chuckles from the audience of guards. “Inspector.”
Kettna crossed her arms, unimpressed. “And who might you be?”
“Watchman Zaylish, at your service.”
“Watchman?” enquired the sorceress, raising an eyebrow. “Isn’t that what they call a guard they can’t promote to Captain?”
“I’m without the blessings high birth afforded you, Inspector. My name and station betray my humble endeavours and common pedigree. As they say, a simple name is better than none.”
Watchman Zaylish cast a spiteful gaze upon Elrin and then upon Minni. The rogue might have liked the silver-haired smart-mouth under different circumstances. He sure got under Kettna’s skin. Unfortunately, Zaylish kept on talking.
“Pay no mind to the tainted wench, Inspector,” he said. “Evil’s always lookin’ for a chance to run from justice. Thought you’d be better off with a cage and escort, so I sent a pair of lads up to the Roost to fetch help.”
“Indeed. How thoughtful of you.” Kettna narrowed her eyes. “When do you expect them back?”
“Not long, I imagine. But never you mind. On my honour, we’ll keep you safe in the shadow of Silk Gate. Right lads?”
The assembled guards cheered in a barely cohesive affirmative and Kettna resigned herself to wait under their protection. Just as Minni thought, the sorceress was out of her depth. She had no control here. Their fate was in the hands of bucket heads. How many of these guards were rotten? Watchman Zaylish was plotting something. He’d be weighing his chances, calculating what it would take to bury Kettna for a slice of the dead letter on Elrin.
“I don’t trust that guard,” Elrin whispered to Minni.
“Only that one?” The rogue wanted to slap them all. “Which one do you trust?”
Minni wasn’t going to be caught unawares. She broadened her perspective, looking for signs of what was to come. Behind the tight circle of guards, the Silk Gate market square was a wreck. Some merchants wept over their destroyed stalls, while others took their frustrations out on the poor urchins looting through the debris for a godsend. For all the golden lustre of Calimska shaded beneath the magical shield, the air hung like a blood-soaked bandage, wet and heavy.
Minni’s draconic senses grew overwhelmed with the clamour of the stricken city. It wasn’t just sights and smells, nor the taste of the air. Her senses were coloured by emotions too. There was an inexplicable layer of feeling that moulded to the shape of the world around her. Mothers wailed over the dead, babes bawled for their mothers. Men cursed the gods and fought with their neighbours. Chickens ran wild, dodging the throngs of people rushing to their closest calamity. Spooked horses bolted through the streets, while others lay in shreds, torn apart and charred by the invading dragons. A red dragon was butchered in the market where it had fallen. High above, another screeched in a panic, trapped between the golden shield and a terrified populous.
Elrin nudged Minni’s arm and brought her focus back down to the more mundane and manageable. Minni had to rein in her powers or her head would overheat. She focused on Elrin’s face. Odd though it was to see him with a beard, Minni still found him handsome. She allowed herself to fall into his dark eyes, breathing him in and letting the world settle where it may. Elrin smiled and the warmth of his open heart restored her in a world gone utterly mad.
“What is it?” asked Minni, wanting to caress his cheek, to pretend that they weren’t surrounded by idiots with sharp weapons in a city falling apart.
“A runner’s coming.” Elrin’s height afforded him a better view through the barricade of guards. “Are you ready?”
“Always. Let’s see what news the runner boy brings his master.”
The runner barrelled up to Watchman Zaylish, huffing like a thrashed horse.
“Took you long enough,” chided Zaylish, more for the benefit of his own authority than a genuine disappointment. “What’s the word uptown, lad?”
“Give him time to catch his breath,” said Kettna. “You couldn’t walk half a circuit without stopping for a pint.”
Watchman Zaylish offered the runner his waterskin and when it was drained, the youngster began his report. “Roost ain’t sendin’ no wagon. All our cages is out trawlin’ up the trouble on the streets. It’s boilin’ out the Cauldron and all down High Street. Thieves left and right, muggin’ folk, storming into shops and taking what they want. They tipped one of our wagons, cage and all. I sees a bunch of toughs tryin’ to wrangle another wagon and then comes Captain Malek with his nightwatch boys. Charged in on steeds of lightnin’ with swords flashin’ this way and that. The brigands didn’t stand a chance. Swear they’re watched by the gods.”
“I don’t doubt it,” muttered Kettna, clearly unsettled by the account. “Did you speak with Captain Malek?”
“Surely did, Ma’am … er, Mistress?”
“O’course, Inspector.” The lad bowed awkwardly then rolled on with his tale. “As soon as he heard who’d come to Silk Gate, the Captain said he’d muster an escort, cage and all. He’s on his way, but the streets are a mess. He says I gotta relay a spontific message: Hold the gate. Keep the prisoners here. No reflections.”
Kettna couldn’t conceal her grin. “Are you sure he said, reflections?”
“Certain as the sun rises over the mountains.”
“Reflections?” asked Watchman Zaylish. “What deviltry can the prisoners do with our reflections?”
“He didn’t say,” replied the runner with a worried expression. “I thought you’d know, being much older and all.”
Zaylish lifted his hand to cuff the boy then thought better of it when Kettna’s glare hit the Watchman. Instead he snatched back his empty waterskin and hooked it onto his belt, yelling at the assembled guards. “Listen square, lads! We’re to hold Silk Gate and see the prisoners don’t run off. Remember; mind the reflections!”
“Which ones?” asked a bucktoothed guard, his eye’s darting left and right. “I don’t see none.”
“Excellent work, guardsman!” Zaylish clapped the man on the shoulder. “Keep it that way.”
Minni couldn’t believe how dimwitted their captors were. Calimskan was their mother tongue and they still had trouble with it. Let them worry about reflections. Funnier still were the suspicious mutterings the guards made about their own shadows. Were these to be feared as well? Perhaps in a profound way their idiocy had merit. Shadows and reflections were more dangerous than they could imagine.