Authors: Deb E Howell
The flash of a dead man filled her mind’s eye, and for the first time in her life, Llew felt guilty for killing a plant. But she couldn’t return life. Once stolen, it remained in her possession.
Under the weight of the three purses, her trousers sat awry, revealing the slim hip under a too-short shirt. Time to rectify that. She turned back toward the market.
From the street corner she watched the two foreigners take the few wooden steps up to the grocer’s. While physically smaller both in height and breadth, the one called Jonas had an aura of power that labelled him the leader of the two, but they both moved with a confidence Llew envied. She wondered what kind of work they could be doing, but had little doubt that soon they would be moving on and leaving Cheer. Her envy grew.
Yet Llew loved Cheer. It was her home town, and the kind of town where people could make their fortune. The only problem with that was that one needed a small fortune to get the equipment required to plunder the hills and high-country rivers. These days, absentee rich miners hired locals to do the back-breaking labour so that there was a steady, if dwindling, flow of gold out of Cheer; less and less of anything coming in.
At least Cheer, and Aghacia as a whole, was untouched by the wars Llew saw mentioned almost daily in the broadsheets. That was where Cheer truly shined. Peace reigned. Its earliest settlers had hailed from far off lands Llew knew little about. Recent arrivals usually came from Phyos, the large continent to the east of Aghacia, bringing news of the ongoing wars between Quaver and Turhmos. Llew knew she’d been born in Quaver, but otherwise knew nothing of anywhere beyond Cheer. And there was no denying Cheer’s natural beauty if one took the time to go beyond those areas touched by settlers, whose greed recognised no boundary.
She made her way back up the main street, scooting around and past people studying the goods on offer or dawdling away from the temptation to spend more.
Llew cursed under her breath. A one-time close friend, these days Kynas made her skin crawl.
Still, he was about the only real friend she’d ever had.
“Hi, Kynas.” She slowed her pace, allowing him to fall in beside her.
“It’s been a good day.” He grinned, patting his pocket. “Did you have a good day?”
She jiggled the pouches hanging off her waist.
“Great,” he said, the jealousy only touching his features for an instant. “You wanna come by my place?”
“No, Kynas. I’m not in the mood.”
“You ain’t been in the mood all summer.” The boy pouted and stopped walking.
Kynas had managed to pick up a job doing odds and ends for an elderly couple, the Maddockses. They couldn’t pay him but allowed him to make a small outbuilding on their property his own. Llew had been known to share it with him on cold winter evenings. But it wasn’t winter yet.
For a few years now they had been friends, looking out for each other. Kynas had even helped her make the transition to life on the street – it wasn’t her fault she had soon outstripped him in the skills he taught. But last winter something had changed. Huddling together to keep warm had become something different. They had experimented, explored themselves and each other. For a while it had been fun. But it wasn’t long before Kynas wanted to play when Llew didn’t. And suddenly the shelter wasn’t free to her any more. Their friendship had irreversibly altered.
She continued walking. She wasn’t about to prostitute herself just to make him feel better. He should know that. Llew had cut her hair short, taken to dressing like a boy, and learnt the art of picking pockets to avoid that lifestyle. Besides, there were plenty of others willing to see to his needs. Well, okay, so she’d originally cut her hair and worn pants to please her father, who preferred having a son over a daughter who reminded him so much of his wife. But she had kept the look for her own reasons.
She stopped into Inael’s store to try on a couple of shirts. With little occasion to dress up and not enough money to be concerned about matching styles and colours, she stuck to her usual off-white linen. She bought two shirts, figuring it was always handy to be able to wash one while still having something decent to wear. She thanked old Inael and skipped down the steps and back onto the dirt road heading for home.
The streets were quieter away from the market. Llew strolled along with her head up like any other respectable citizen. When she wasn’t picking pockets, she found that skulking only served to attract more attention, so it was always best to behave like an innocent. The trick was to look natural doing so.
Llew turned to the distressed voice. “Kynas?”
The boy was struggling in the grip of two uniformed men. Farries! Llew instinctively stooped, stepping in by the side of a building.
“Help me, Llew! They think I killed Mr. Maddocks!”
“Well, who else?” one of the Farries said, shaking Kynas. Cursing, Llew pressed herself deeper into the shadows.
It would be stupid of the boy to put his deal with the Maddocks at risk, but it was a natural conclusion for the lawmen to draw – and any excuse to remove another urchin from Cheer’s streets would do.
“I don’t know!” Kynas wailed, kicking his legs and trying to wriggle free of the Farry’s grasp. Realising his efforts were futile, he relaxed. And then his finger pointed to Llew. “That one. Sh – he did it!”
wasn’t much of a lady in Braph’s opinion. His ears had been assaulted by foul language throughout the journey, she smelled as bad as the Ryaen docks, and no-one could accuse her of being sleek: there was a definite swelling around her middle. She’d also been a rough ride, but he could excuse her a great deal: at least she had carried him safely to Ryaen.
He scratched his beard, sweeping his eyes over the docks. Dirty, stinking and noisy, the scene offended his senses. Sea birds squawked overhead, showering departing passengers in green and white guano. With a thought and a gesture he conjured an invisible barrier around him. A woman’s gasp and complaint nearby soon let him know it hadn’t been for nothing. He rewarded her accusing look with a contemptuous one of his own, as she dabbed herself free of the deflected droppings with a handkerchief, and continued on his way.
Burly men lifted crates from the
and hurled passengers’ luggage to the docks. Braph had no luggage but the bag slung from his shoulder, and so departed at a brisk pace, with little regard for those in his way.
Away from the docks, Ryaen was almost pleasant. Quieter, at the very least. The fashions weren’t dissimilar to those on Phyos: tightly corseted women in brilliantly-coloured dresses, and men in braces and bowler hats, trying to look as though they had more important things to do than pass lewd comments on the women. Braph knew better.
He reached the livery stable, and stood assessing the horse flesh with an unskilled eye. Every one of the creatures was a simple brainless beast. However, if he were to make his way to Cheer under his own steam, it would leave no power to perform even the most basic magic. And there was every chance he would need far more than basic magic to take the girl back to Turhmos.
“After a horse, mister?”
“Indeed.” Braph looked the man up and down. He wore a heavy leather apron over simple brown trousers and a filthy shirt. Braph was unimpressed. “Your best.”
“Speed, stamina or temperament?”
“All of them.”
“You’ll be wanting Revera. She’s a good ’un.” The man grinned. “You got money? I can’t be sending her out without a decent deposit, you understand?”
“Right y’are.” The man disappeared through a heavy side door, appearing some time later leading a saddled horse.
“That’ll be ten miras.”
“Ten miras. She’s a good horse.”
Braph sighed and dug into his money pouch. It still seemed an exorbitant amount for horseflesh, but he wasn’t an unreasonable man. Everyone had the right to earn a living. He placed eight paper notes into the man’s hand. The fingers closed on the paper, but the reins were not handed over and instead the man studied the paper, his brows furrowed.
“Paper money. They’re Turhmos miras. Accepted everywhere on Phyos.”
“Got any real money?”
Braph sighed once more, working hard to keep his temper in check, and held out his hand to receive the notes back. When they weren’t forthcoming, he snatched them out of the man’s hand before rummaging through his pouch once more and bringing out an assortment of coins. Before the man saw them, he closed his hand and opened it again to display the eight miras – or what
like eight miras – and sprinkled them into the outstretched palm. Braph couldn’t say how long they would maintain their appearance. He’d only ever performed the trick when he was parting with coins and had yet to keep any he had altered. Grubby fingers closed over the money, and the reins were thrust at him.
Outside in the Ryaen sunshine, Braph gathered the reins and swung himself into the saddle. The horse was shorter than he would have liked and he hoped he hadn’t been played. On the outskirts of Ryaen he jabbed his heels into her sides. She took off with a turn of speed that nearly sent him over her rump and maintained a pace that had him in Lanich by early evening.
He booked the finest room in the finest hotel in Lanich. That wasn’t saying much; this was Aghacia, after all. In Duffirk, Turhmos’ capital, they had hotels reaching eighty feet high and contraptions to lift you all the way to the top – elevators, they called them. Lanich’s finest was a mere two storeys and a rickety flight of stairs.
Braph threw his hide gloves on the bed and flexed his fingers. They, along with the rest of him, were stiff from the day of riding. He thought about treating his tired muscles but decided a simple night’s rest might ease his aches. He had a good number of crystals on him, but it was better to save them until really needed.
Propping his leather-booted foot on a chair, he unbuckled the small compartment behind his ankle to check the last crystal he’d made from Orinia’s blood. He touched the crystal, remembering their last day together. Then he refastened the buckle. That one crystal held more power than the others combined, more power than he should ever need: unless he ran into his brother. But there was no need for Jonas to be in Aghacia, and only the smallest chance he was still looking for Braph. No, Braph was almost certain that Aris – Jonas’ captain, father-figure and creator – wouldn’t risk his little project by pursuing revenge.
A knock came at the door and Braph opened it to receive his evening meal, brought by a sullen serving girl. A place as small as this didn’t usually offer room service, but they did if you had the knack for asking in the right way. Braph had the knack; he had the knack for all sorts of things.
He placed the tray on the bed and set about peeling off the rest of his leather – the long jacket, and the triple-buckled boots, and the thick leather belt with its equally heavy buckle, finally unlacing his trousers and sliding them to the floor. Then he threw himself in the chair and chewed at a piece of tough meat while he contemplated the days ahead.
He’d met the girl’s father in Cheer about five years ago. She must have been there, too, but her father had led him astray. And if Turhmos hadn’t allowed Orinia to become so ill, forcing Braph’s return, he would have found her. If she had since moved, he had to hope there was a new trail to follow. And he hoped she was as powerful as her mother and not diminished by her father’s half-blood.
. He missed her, though it irked him to admit it. She had been everything to him during some of his most important formative years: his mother, his wife, his mistress, his best friend, the source of his power. Behind every great man . . . With her behind him, he had indeed been great, he had been supreme. He would be again.
His meal finished, he put the plate by the door. Then he fished in his bag for his thunderstick, one of his own inventions. As far as he knew it worked, but he was still perfecting the ammunition for it. For now he used small spherical pellets that he packed down on top of the explosive. He had been developing an all-in-one round that didn’t require packing the powder first, but he couldn’t experiment further without his workshop. The device would be needed should his magic prove insufficient to defeat his brother.
He lounged in a chair by the open window. Resting his elbow on the sill he sighted along the thunderstick’s barrel. A man in a dress coat hurried along the street completely unaware that, if he chose, Braph could put a hole in the back of his head. For a brief moment, Braph sorely wanted to, just to know how it would feel.
“Bang,” he said emotionlessly.
Braph slept well. In the dawn, after a brief period of meditation, he stretched his muscles and took to his horse once more, aiming to be in Iaves by nightfall. Another day closer to Cheer.
The second officer spotted her and started running. Llew shot off down the road, taking the first turn and continuing on a convoluted path through the streets of Cheer. There weren’t a great many routes to choose from and she had to cover the same ground several times. Clutching her better fitting, perfectly clean new shirts slowed her down, but she didn’t want to throw them aside and leave a hint of where she had been, never mind the waste of money.