The Gold Cat’s Daughter

By

Mark Rude

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All persons, gods and monsters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real individuals, living, dead or immortal is purely coincidental.

Conversely, if any of the gods or monsters described herein turn out to be real after all, the author takes no responsibility.

 

 

 

 

© 2011 by Duck Castle Press

All rights reserved.

 

This file contains the first two chapters of “The Gold Cat’s Daughter” and is intended for review purposes only.


Chapter One

 

The Arrangement

 

Lady Cindra Corrina sat wrapped in a blanket upon a cushioned bench in the window alcove as she watched the clouds drift by. Though the window might have provided a spectacular view had the castle been higher or the walls lower, it still offered a chance to watch the sails of tall ships entering and leaving the harbor. She would often spend hours at this seat, writing her poems or just practicing her hand in ink and quill, but today she had no words she wished to commit to parchment. She had far too much to think about concerning her future, as it all seemed bleak and dismal from this day onward.

Cindra was small for a girl of fourteen, but still had some growing to do if her mother’s height was any indicator. The maiden had inherited her mother’s longer nose and soft sculpted jaw, and her father’s hazel eyes and olive skin. She had strong legs from a childhood of running up and down stairs and all about the castle but to her dismay she was not blooming as early or as noticeably as other girls her age. Surely she ate better than the servant girls but suspected her breeding was partly to blame. It was often a source of insecurity, and her mirror knew her image well.

Lady Cindra’s auburn hair shone with streaks like burnished copper in the sunlight. Upon her brow she wore a thin circlet of gold that served to mark her as nobility, should anyone in her father’s service not be aware of her station or existence. At least, that is what she told herself on some of her more disheartened days like today. It was the 28th of Kraamoth, 1114 in the Age of Omens, and it was Cindra’s birthday.

Not that this was usually a bad day, but on this particular birthday she was faced with the prospect of a feast in her honor and the announcement of her upcoming nuptials. It had been her fate as a girl-born to be married off at a young age, lest the best of her childbearing years be wasted, leaving her husband with no heirs and her unable to have more. Now only a few scant months after today, she would be packed aboard a ship with her baggage and a dowry to be deposited in a foreign land and married to a man she had never met, all to seal an alliance painstakingly forged by her father for reasons of state. It was as if her world was coming to an end.

“I hope you like sailing Rufi,” she said to the small cat upon her lap as she parted the blanket. Rufi poked his black calico head lazily out of the blanket and looked up at her with disinterested eyes. “You were never happy to wander anywhere but in my rooms. I couldn’t imagine leaving you here all alone.” Rufi sighed in feline manner and laid his head upon his paws once more.

“He’s hardly alone, milady.” Mineth, Cindra’s handmaiden, came through the curtains separating the day room from the bower, two dresses folded over her arms. “He has his whole family about, brothers and sisters to play with, and more space here than he’d have aboard ship, to be sure.” She adjusted the dresses in her arms and smoothed them against her ample hourglass figure, over which she wore a simple gray dress. She had dark hair and pale skin with large brown eyes that managed to balance a rather protruding but elegant nose. She wore her hair in large braids under a veil and a small flat cap. She smiled reassuringly with broad, full lips.

Cindra petted the drowsy cat in her lap. “It’s possible to live with one’s family and be alone, Mineth.”

Accustomed to her mistress’s moods, Mineth laid the dresses carefully upon the sewing table and sat opposite the girl. She had known Lady Cindra most of her life, which counted some twenty-six years. Mineth was the daughter of the countess’s handmaiden come from Aurilon, and was given charge of young Cindra once the child no longer needed a wet nurse. She had very nearly raised the girl twelve years her junior, and knew her ways all too well. “Don’t be like that, milady. You’ll always have me about, and things are not so very bad. The count and countess love you, and they’ll miss you sorely.”

“Not as much as my brother, I think.” Cindra knew it was a mistake as soon as she said it, for Mineth stiffened and took on her scolding tone.

“Your brother is dead, milady! A child can break a parent’s heart in many ways, but dying is the worst! You’ve no right, begging you pardon milady, no right to wish for that kind of pain upon your poor parents. They’re sending you off to be a duchess after all, not to die.”

“I know,” Cindra said quietly. “It’s just that sometimes,” she heaved a sigh and hugged the cat to her chest and it mewed in annoyance. “Sometimes, I feel like we all died with him; like we’re just unfeeling ghosts drifting through the halls.” She returned her gaze to the clouds, adjusting the blanket about her shoulders.

There was a knock on the door beyond the curtain dividing the day room from the bower. Mineth stood and gave her lady a stern yet sympathetic look, patting her shoulder comfortingly before hurrying off to answer. A moment later the curtain parted and Mineth reappeared, bowing and holding the fabric open for the countess. Zara Corrina was willowy and statuesque, with a regal bearing and gliding walk. Her mouth was generous, her emerald eyes seemed to smile even when her lips did not, and her skin was like fresh cream. She wore her golden hair braided and topped with a bonnet of soft white fur. The collar of her dress was embroidered with the seashell and pearl symbols of House DuMaylione. She glided across the floor with even steps and her daughter rose to meet her, first depositing the disgruntled cat upon the cushion and discarding her blanket.

“Mother,” Cindra said, giving the countess a curtsey. The girl wore a pelice of gray silk lined with rabbit fur over a dark blue high-necked gown.

“I hope I am not intruding?” The countess gazed at the sewing table. “I see Mineth has picked out some dresses for your approval.” Her voice was lower and more compelling than many women were gifted with, but soft and measured, capable of much tenderness. Her Aurilonian accent, with its longer vowels and lisping quality, made her all the more elegant.

“No mother, I had not looked at them yet,” the girl said, trying to seem happy on this, her least-anticipated birthday.

“Your father has heard that you have been playing on the battlements again, making the sentries nervous,” the countess said as she walked to the window alcove, her eyes following the window’s tracery crafted in the shape of a rose of the goddess Selvina. “I think he believes a seagull will snatch you up.”

“I could only wish,” Cindra said, wistfully.

The countess turned and regarded Cindra with saddened eyes. “He only worries for your safety, kitten. You are his only child.”

“I am his daughter,” she said, a little louder than she had intended. Then softer, “If I were a boy, things would be different. As they are, he hardly notices me. And now he’s going to get rid of me.” She felt a catch in her throat, her emotion rising significantly as she gave voice to her thoughts.

Mineth made a loud “Tsk!” and turned away to busy herself with the dresses. The countess stared at the ornate carpet, her eyes seeing only a tiny face from the past and not the colorful embroidery. When she spoke again, her voice was lower than before, and unsteady. “Do not despise him, child. He has lost much… we have lost much. Now all his hopes for the future are pinned upon your marriage. It is so very important to him.”

Cindra turned to look into her mother’s moistened eyes as her own began to fill with tears. “I want to be important to him.”

 

The city of Portshia had endured for twelve centuries upon the Crimson Bay on the southern coast of Calilon. To the east rose the sheltering mountain slopes of the Casselvane Range, where rich veins of silver had been discovered; to the north and west was the edge of the Shadowood, a dark and ancient forest through which the Joshian River flowed. The river had long ago been diverted to a large canal system, which irrigated crops in the northern lands and formed a moat and waterway about the city walls.

Towards the southern end of the city was the Highcourt, enclosed by a wall that encircled a cliff as it rose towards the sea. Upon the sea cliff was raised a low and humble castle, not very much higher than the wall surrounding its bailey; Casselvane Keep was a thick ring of stone that enclosed a small inner courtyard. Having been restored after many battles, it was found that a low profile was more defensible against the new powder cannon that had risen to prominence in the last century. Its lime-washed ramparts were an impressive sight, but the keep itself was mostly hidden from view by the encircling curtain wall. The front of the keep presented a gatehouse through which all would enter, a double portcullis between two imposing arms of masonry.

The main banquet hall was arrayed in splendor for the evening’s celebration. Flames burned high in the hooded fireplaces, warming the great hall against the winter chill. Feminine sky-blue banners draped the arched doorframes and hung from the walls; the rest of the city was adorned in much the same way with ribbons and streamers. It was so on the week following Cindra’s birth and again when her brother was born, except the banners were masculine burgundy. Now the town and castle were festooned with colors to mark her engagement and the success of her father’s efforts.

The grand chandelier glowed with enchanted light that would shine until morning, neither flickering nor waning. Life-sized portraits of Corrina ancestors were dusted and cleaned so their paint shone with fresh vibrancy, and incense was burned in the galleries. From the tall supporting arches of the main hall were hung banners of the Corrina Family coat of arms: a field of blue upon which posed a rampant golden cat, below was a golden half-sun/silver half-moon, and above the beast’s head were arrayed three silver crowns in the three-pointed style of Arathus, the King God.

The dining table formed a large circle; open at the far end to allow servers to move about the center area. The table was draped with a dozen sections of linen, all embroidered with images of game animals, fish and fowl. Chairs with lavish red cushions lined the outside of the table. Guests were first led to the audience hall in the east wing, there to be entertained by minstrels, dancers, and wizards from the Mystic College. When all had arrived and been given time to mingle, they were guided into the lavish west wing to be seated at the circular table. The count and countess were announced and made their entrance, walking hand in hand as was the custom. The minstrels had taken up their places in the gallery along the inner wall and played a lively melody to accompany them.

Count Corrina was an impressive man, being neither overly tall nor broad; yet he possessed a steady, measuring gaze and lordly self-assurance. His hair was chestnut brown and graying throughout, and receded at the brow, which was creased as one who spends much time in deep thought. He wore rich burgundy garb, a golden circlet upon his head, and about his neck was a pendant bearing the device of a boar and mountain peaks, symbol of the province of Casselvane. The countess wore a blue gown with airy sleeves of gauze and a necklace of pearls on which hung the DuMaylione family crest of silver shell and pearl. Her braided hair fell down her back and was crowned with a silver comb in the form of an open net. She also wore a golden circlet at her brow, set with an emerald to match her eyes.

Once the count and countess took their places at the head of the table, the herald called out “Lady Cindra Corrina!” All heads turned as the young noble girl was escorted into the main hall. Cindra had chosen a gown of bright yellow and upon her brow was a gold circlet set with a large ruby. She wore no other jewelry, and was happy to not be burdened with an engagement ring yet. The lady’s escort was one of the count’s most trusted knights; Sir Fedrick Dunlorden was an aged man, but still spry and full of voices when needed. He wore a knight’s formal attire with the Corrina coat of arms upon the chest; he walked with a slight limp, smiling despite a few missing front teeth and a scarred eye, white and useless. All were badges of service, and he wore them with pride. His hair was white where it still clung to his head, and his beard was wiry and stiff, like the bristles of a boar’s back.

Sir Fedrick took his place beside his son after seeing the young lady to her chair, and the castle pages poured the toast. The formalities dragged on as the count took his daughter’s hand and raised it, proclaiming, “Friends and honored guests, negotiations have been completed and the arrangements have been made.” He turned to Cindra, “My daughter, Lady Cindra Corrina, shall marry his grace, Haynyyd Syn DeKaard, Duke of Kyshmeryyk, three months hence in the kingdom of Rokvynnar!” He pronounced the difficult foreign words with practiced ease. The assembled guests raised their goblets and cheered in praise. Cindra wore a smile that barely concealed her disgust; the guests were mostly boot-lickers and social climbers, caring nothing for her happiness, but saw only opportunity and riches for themselves.They would cheer so if my father told them his favorite hound had puppies, she thought bitterly. Besides, he got the duke’s name wrong. It’s Hammyd.

Once the meal service had begun, Cindra allowed herself to relax a little. Soon the noise of the diners reached a jovial buzz as the winter mead flowed, and Cindra began looking at the guests to try and remember just who they were. Her mother had gone over the guest list with her a few days before, since it was her duty to be educated about the workings of court, but she had taken only outward interest at the time. Now she made a game of it.

The woman to her right she knew well enough. Reverend Sister Lyneth, the local head of the temple of the love goddess Selvina, was a common sight in the castle, being a good friend of the countess. The Reverend Sister wore a stiff white veil tucked and shaped artfully about her head, and set like a gauzy pavilion over her braided blonde hair. Her blue gown gave only a slight nod to modesty, but such was the way of the Selvinians. Lyneth was a great beauty herself, full of figure and graceful, and possessing a delicate nose which Cindra often envied, and large brown eyes that made her look far more innocent than she was.

She recognized the albino Lord Clavemont beside the priestess, though they had never met; his pale skin, light blond hair, and pale blue eyes were unmistakable. He was perhaps thirty or more, dressed in gray velvet and bearing the emblem of a golden wyvern. He was escorted by a young woman who seemed to laugh at the wrong times when listening to his humorous stories. She had a large ornate headpiece that was nearly as broad as her shoulders, and her head seemed to veer to-and-fro as she turned about. The woman looked a bit drunk already; Clavemont would occasionally place his hand upon hers, as if politely reining her in.

Next to Clavemont was a married couple that Cindra guessed were Master Theenix, chairman of the Trade Guild, and his pinch-faced wife. The count had invited them to gauge the support of the city’s trades, should they be required to supply a war effort. She paused in her game and returned to her meal for a moment. War was the reason for this banquet, these pleasantries, and her marriage. Her tutors had explained this to her over a year ago, when her father’s overtures to Rokvynnar began at the bidding of Calilon’s king. Alliance with Rokvynnar meant trade and wealth, but also fast ships, and an ally instead of an enemy in the western reaches of the kingdom. Cindra knifed a bit of eel and swirled it in sauce, wondering if her future husband had to like her, or she him, for this arrangement to work to everyone’s satisfaction. Probably not, she mused.

Cindra looked to her left and recognized one man by his pendant: a serpent weighed upon merchant’s scales. Some commoners were wealthy enough to purchase their own coat of arms, and such was Kobus DuChat. He was a handsome man with thick, curly black hair and a trimmed beard, and immaculately fitted attire. Cindra wondered where he acquired the cut on his eyelid that caused it to lie more heavily than the other. DuChat was known to be sympathetic to the crown and the status quo, and was being courted for his resources, as well as his rumored spies among the trade routes, many of which crossed into unfriendly lands.

Cindra marked the difference in behavior of the couple farther on, commoners also, but trying all too hard to start or enter conversation. The man was Julen Gordon, a ship owner and opportunist. He ruined Cindra’s game by giving his name and business freely, and his wife Lemorea was no better. They had seemed to rehearse their stories and conversation for the benefit of the other guests, trying to bring attention to their business connections or form new ones. If they had not been invited, they might have wheedled their way in the door. They toasted too loudly and frequently, and Cindra was put off her dinner.

To the left of the merchant couple was Sir Fedrick, the worn old knight who had once been a commoner himself. His son, Sir Jaron, was seated beside him, speaking quietly. She had not seen Sir Jaron before now and wondered how he had avoided her notice. He was perhaps eighteen with a light beard trimmed thin along his angular jaw and large, deep-set eyes of blue-gray over sculpted cheeks. His hair was dark brown and cut with forelocks that framed his brow, and was otherwise pulled tight behind his head and tied in the knight’s traditional tipok knot. His skin was olive and tanned from a life outdoors, looking warm and radiant under the chandelier. He finished speaking and turned his attention back, directly, to…. her.

As their eyes met, Cindra felt a flush in her cheeks; the young knight held her gaze with boldness beyond his station, with an intimacy that startled her. Her stomach fluttered with butterflies and she remembered that the love goddess Selvina had a fondness for those creatures. Small wonder. The young knight smiled and saluted her with his goblet, a slight, private smile on his full lips. Cindra’s heart began to pound and she felt light-headed. She blinked and flicked her eyes about the room, seeing if anyone noticed the exchange. He was still looking! She smiled despite herself and reached for her own goblet, almost knocking it into the pudding. Her hands were unsteady and beginning to tremble.

Reverend Sister Lyneth spoke to the girl. “Does milady Cindra enjoy the mead? The food is most excellent, is it not?”

Cindra blinked and turned bodily in her chair to face the sister, desperate for the distraction. “I... yes! It is quite good. Quite fitting for... for this occasion. My birthday, that is.” Cindra felt as empty-headed as Lord Clavemont’s giddy escort. She tried to recall how much mead she had drank, and found it was not much at all.

Sister Lyneth gave her a knowing smile as she lifted a bite to her mouth. “Milady has a good eye,” she said, and took a nibble.

Cindra braved a glance at the young knight and found he was eating too, looking often in her direction. She decided to act natural and eat, but suddenly didn’t want him watching her while she ate. She fluttered her hands about her plate indecisively. “I don’t know what you mean, Reverend Sister.”

“No, of course not,” the priestess said, looking from the girl to the knight. Sir Jaron noticed the woman’s attention, stole one more glance at Cindra, and proceeded to call for more mead. The priestess smiled to herself and felt the hand of the goddess at work. “If milady attends the Festival of Devotion in a few months, you shall no doubt see him in the joust.”

“Hmm?” Cindra asked innocently, “See who?” She blinked a little too much.

“Sir Jaron Dunlorden, the handsome young knight across the table,” she said knowingly. “It’s only but a few short years since he earned his spurs, and already he is gaining a reputation as a masterful fighting man. He’s very popular with the festival crowds.”

“Is that so?” Cindra replied, looking to him as if she had only just noticed. “He seems very…” she groped for the right word as several inappropriate ones passed across her mind, making her blush, “…very confident.”

“It is said that fortune favors the bold, milady.”

“The same is said about the foolish, is it not?” Cindra replied.

“Even so,” Lyneth answered. “I could introduce you if you wish.”

Lyneth’s plans were interrupted by the count himself, who leaned towards them pointedly so Cindra would pay attention. “Reverend Sister! My daughter will favor the young duke, I think. Do you agree?”

Turning her big, innocent eyes to the count, she proclaimed, “Yes, I am sure she will, my lord. His grace is quite accomplished and worthy… for a lad of twelve years.” She turned back to her food; the goddess’s will be done.

“TWELVE??” Cindra exclaimed, spinning in her seat to face her father. “Twelve? The duke was supposed to be twenty-three!” The party conversation died rather abruptly.

The count looked quite embarrassed, as though he had felt beneath the table and realized he had forgotten his stockings. Clearing his throat, he started, “Well, Hammyd Syn DeKaardwas twenty-three…”

Cindra was livid, caring nothing for the eyes around her. “When I heard you say Haynyyd, I thought you said it wrong! Who is Haynyyd then?”

The count raised his voice, both to gain some measure of control and make his case to the curious and cowed party guests. “Hammyd was the duke. Unfortunately, his grace died a few months ago, under unknown circumstances. I…” Another clearing of his throat, “I managed to salvage the marriage arrangement with the dowager duchess; her younger son Haynyyd is the new duke. She accepted the terms.” The count looked about the table, avoiding his daughter’s coal-hot eyes.

There was a bit of murmuring about the table as the guests took in the news. It was not so much a concern that the groom had been substituted, but that the first duke had died under “unknown circumstances.” Such was the spark that began a brushfire of rumors at elegant parties. Cindra abandoned her game of guess-the-guest and cried, “What kind of marriage is this? Will my husband pull my braids and throw stones at me? Will I have to wipe his snotty nose and his spotty behind?”

“Oh no,” said the Reverend Sister, “I’m sure he has servants for that.”

“Ugh!” Cindra fumed, her braids feeling too tight and her appetite utterly destroyed.

“That will be enough, Reverend Sister Lyneth,” rumbled the count under his breath, regretting inviting the meddlesome priestess, then wondering why he had done so in the first place. Ah yes, he recalled,the countess had insisted on it.

Hoping to break the tension, and of course, to call attention to himself, the merchant Julen Gordon raised his voice and his goblet. “A toast! To a prosperous union between the Lady Cindra and the young duke, and to her wise and adept father, Count Casselvane.” His wife, Lemorea, beaming with pride at her husband’s social prowess and tact, smiled with approval and raised her glass as well. “To the Lady Cindra and the Count!” she intoned.

The guests all raised their goblets at the toast, hoping to defuse the powder keg that was the young noble girl in braids. The count accepted the toast in good form.

“Granting more than just secure trade and the alliance of the Rokvynnar, this union will serve to send a message to the Dissenter Houses: the king has a strong naval ally and full command of the Red Coast. They may think twice before making a treasonous mistake.” At the word ‘treasonous,’ the room went silent.

Lord Clavemont, cocking his white head in concern said, “Are things truly so unstable in the kingdom, my lord?”

The count paused, weighing his words carefully. “His majesty has reason for preparation. The eastern provinces have suffered the ambitions of their barons for many years. Far from the sight of the crown, they seek to carve out their own kingdoms. The king has tried to regain control, but marching on the rival barons may, in fact, unite them to a common cause.”

The threat of civil war voiced so clearly gave pause to all, even the pages who scurried to clear away the empty plates and trays. Only Cindra was unmoved, for she had heard all of this before; the number ‘twelve’ was floating in her vision like an insect that could not be fanned away. She had to leave the table before she threw a fit again, or worse, broke out into tears before the insensible dinner guests. She rose from her chair. Her father and the men at the table rose with her, as was customary, but her father took her hand and held it tightly, turning to Cindra and catching her off guard. He said to her, “Friends are becoming scarce, and His Majesty desires that such alliances will bring hope in times of great need.” He looked into her eyes and with surprising sincerity, said, “My daughter, you wed with the blessings of the king, and with all of our hopes. May your beauty and grace strengthen us and foster peace.”

The gathered guests applauded and Cindra tried to leave as gracefully as her bearing required, and quickly too, lest she scream in frustration before reaching her bedchamber.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Black Will

 

 “PEACE!” She cried as she stormed about her bower, the stoked fire matching her mood and the light giving flame to her brushed-out braids. “He wants peace, does he?”

Mineth wrung her hands in worry as she tried to think of something to calm her lady but was at a loss in the face of the storm. Instead, she went about collecting the shoes Cindra had flung at the walls.

Cindra stalked back and forth at the foot of her poster bed, punishing her braids out with a silver brush and shaking her fists in rage. “Marry me off to a twelve year old boy!” She stomped about wanting to kick a chair, but some better sense told her she would only hurt her toe. “Send me to live in Rokvynnar! Duke Kyshymuck, Heinous Sin DeKaard!” She stopped suddenly in the middle of the room, and Mineth sensed it was safe and appropriate to get close.

Cindra began to cry, holding her brush close to her like a holy relic and choking on her sobs. Mineth put supportive arms around the girl’s shoulders and muttered in Aurilonian words of comfort she had picked up from her own mother, handmaiden to the countess. “La shupú, fellí, mesha shupú.

“It’s not fair Mineth,” Cindra sniffled. “It was bad enough as it was… now, a boy…. twelve!”

Mineth put her arms around the girl and led her to the vanity table so she could brush out Cindra’s braids in a less violent manner.

“I’ve never been anywhere, I’ve not seen the world at all, and now I’ll be sent off to another castle to be cooped up like a hen.” She sat at the padded stool and slumped in despair as Mineth tended her hair.

“See the world, milady? Few people truly see the world. Even your father rarely travels far from his lands. Merchants travel all about, but only where their business leads them. Pilgrims journey to temples and holy sites, but with their heads bowed and eyes turned inward, and soldiers march for miles and miles, but go where they are told and have death as a constant companion. No one really travels just to see the world.” Mineth had a way of looking at things simply, making them easier to bear.

Cindra was not convinced. “The Galindri go where they please. They sleep under the stars, and go from town to town and province to province.”

“Does milady wish she had been raised Galindri?” Mineth smiled at the thought of her noble-born lady traipsing about in a caravan and selling blankets.

Cindra smiled in spite of herself, her mood lightened a bit by the idea. “That would be a sight, would it not? But my skin is too light and my eyes are not nearly green enough.” She gathered her hair in a topknot that spilled down about her face, like the pictures she had seen of Galindri traders. She added, “It’s said they steal children to raise as their own, but no one would be fooled by me.” Her mind lingered a bit on the thought of the disguise.

Mineth continued working on Cindra’s hair; she was pleased to see it had its usual calming effect. “Well, the guests will be leaving soon enough, and things will be peaceful here again.”

Cindra was still looking into the mirror on her vanity table, an idea turning in her head. The guests would be leaving soon… all the commotion and activity… it would be a perfect opportunity…

“Milady?” Mineth glanced at the distracted maiden, wondering what had taken her so far from her sulking. She had a distant look in her face, as if she was seeing something unfold far away.

“Mineth!” Cindra finally said, “Mineth, that’s it! The guests are leaving, and no one will notice! It’s perfect!” The girl got up and began pacing the room, looking to and fro.

Mineth was rightly confused and a bit worried, for she sensed that whatever thought had entered her lady’s head was leading her into nothing but trouble. Once, Cindra had concocted a new game to play with the servant children that involved running in a serpentine formation all about the outer battlements and whacking the guards’ halberds with sticks. This looked worse.

“A disguise!” Cindra exclaimed, turning on Mineth with glee. “A simple disguise, something no one would notice. I can slip downstairs and out to a carriage, and ride away with no one the wiser.”

Mineth was aghast. “Ride away, milady?? What nonsense is this?” She put her hands on her hips in her resolute, unmovable stance.

Cindra was not discouraged. “I’ll need a cloak, and a simple gown, nothing fancy, maybe one of yours, and something warm for my feet… oh, and my purse. Where is my purse?” She began rummaging in her dressing drawers.

“You cannot leave the castle, milady! Absolutely not! Your father and mother would worry so, and what if something were to happen to you?” Mineth tried to keep her voice stern but quiet, not wanting to draw attention if this disaster could be contained.

“If anyone finds out, tell them I put you up to it on pain of death or something.” Cindra said helpfully as she searched Mineth’s dressing chest in the corner.

“Pain of death?” The handmaiden said in alarm. Was it some kind of threat? What had gotten into the girl?

“Or something,” Cindra said distractedly, picking out a simple but warm wool gown of blue. “I will go out into the city and come right back, once I’ve had a look around.” Cindra took the handmaiden by the shoulders and looked her in the eye, her intensity overpowering. “This may be my last chance for an adventure before I spend the rest of my life locked in another castle. I have to do this, Mineth.”

“An adventure? What do you need with an adventure? What’s gotten into you, milady?” The girl was mad!

Cindra gathered her disguise onto her bed and began to undo the bindings of her yellow party gown. “I don’t know how to explain it, but all my life I have felt that something more is waiting for me outside these walls, and I must go and see for myself. This is my chance, and I cannot allow it to pass. All I ask of you is to take my place in the bed until I return, and tell no one. It will be alright, trust me!” She continued undressing, and Mineth began helping her out of habit. “I shall ride on a carriage, then call for another to take me back to the keep. I shall pretend I am you if they question me at the gate.” Cindra had worked it all out in her head, confident that her plan was foolproof.

She was also sure that Mineth was beginning to weaken. Her handmaiden had a strong sense of what was right and wrong, but also found it impossible to deny the girl that was like a baby sister as much as a lady she served. She might worry endlessly until Cindra returned, but she would not stop her or alert her parents to the plan. All that was needed was a bit of assurance to keep her conflicted, a sworn promise to immobilize her. She felt a pang of guilt at manipulating her handmaid, but she was a servant after all, was she not?

Cindra took Mineth’s hands in hers and made her voice steady and solemn. “Mineth, I promise I will return safely. The gods will it; I can feel it. All I need from you is your sacred promise that you will keep it a secret, and not spoil their plans for me.” The gods had a special influence over Mineth that Cindra could not match, but could invoke when needed. Perhaps such manipulation would weigh against her soul one day, but Cindra figured she had plenty of time to sort it out before her day of judgment.

The poor handmaid did not know what to do. Did the gods really mean for her lady to put her life in danger and wander the city this night? Was there something divine at work in her mad plan? Or was this more like the time she had explained to her enraged father that Balkon, the god of war, had told her in a dream to fire off a cannon at the west bank and shatter a tree? “I… oh milady Cindra, you mustn’t ask me to swear.”

Cindra pressed her advantage home. “But Mineth, if you don’t swear, I will not know if you’ve betrayed my trust. How could I fulfill my destiny if my parents are waiting for me at the gate when I return? Please, will you swear?”

“I… I suppose,” Mineth said weakly. It was all Cindra needed, and she tossed the yellow party gown on the bed. The cold air tingled against her skin through the thin undergarments, but it was nothing like the excitement racing up her spine at the thought of slipping away into the night, unmissed and unnoticed. She climbed into the woolen gown and began pulling on her hose and boots. She fastened her coin purse to her belt and, after securing her hair in a kerchief, draped the dark blue cloak with its deep hood about her shoulders. Looking in her large polished mirror one final time, she bade Mineth to dress in a nightgown and pretend to sleep if anyone should come calling.

She left Mineth behind in the bower to climb into bed and mutter recriminations to herself. She carefully closed her chamber door and looked over the railing of the second floor hallway, which overlooked the base of the stairs inside and the courtyard without. Carriages were lined up to cart away the party guests who had begun donning cloaks and coats at the foot of the grand stair. Cindra made her way down as calmly as possible, keeping her face down and her hood up. Some of the guests and servants looked up at her curiously before returning their attention to meet the cold air. So far so good, thought Cindra, quite pleased that she was so easily ignored. As she reached the base of the grand stair, she stood off to the side to give the guests room to depart. The wealthy commoner couple the Gordons were currently pulling on fancy gloves and scarves and chatting away about the prospects of trade with Rokvynnar. Cindra waited until the large ironclad doors were opened to let them out and she started to move around one of the carved pillars that flanked the decorative stonework of the portal. She followed the Gordons out until a voice stopped her dead in her tracks. “Tsst! Hold up a minute, miss.” It was a doorman in burgundy and gold, who was suddenly at her side, a restraining hand on her arm. Cindra’s terror turned to shocked outrage at being grabbed so by a servant, but then she recalled that she was in no position to mind, being as she was, disguised as a servant herself.

The doorman gave her a harsh whisper before releasing her. “Give the departing guests a respectful distance, now.” Cindra relaxed as she realized that her disguise had worked perfectly.

She waited for the footman to help the Gordons into their carriage, and she hurried down the stairs past the stonework cats at the base of the wide banister which held aloft globes of magically illuminated crystal. The Gordons were still flaunting their business, though it was being wasted on the teamsters and horses. Julen was saying, “This is quite an opportunity! I shall leave tomorrow on a packet ship bound for Rokvynnar and try to feel out the situation. No doubt the merchants there will have heard the news as well.”

Lemorea asked, “Is it not too soon? The wedding is not for another few months.” She situated herself in the seat and her husband followed.

Cindra slipped around the footman and quietly folded down the baggage shelf so she might sit on the back of the carriage. She could still hear their conversation through the curtained back window of the covered passenger compartment.

Julen was saying, “It’s never too soon to take advantage of a good thing. I don’t plan to sign any contracts, but I might still make some inquiries.”

Lemorea replied, “Very well, my dear. That poor girl didn’t seem too happy with the situation, did she?”

Julen turned to her and said, “What poor girl?” The carriage pulled away as Cindra mentally knifed the man in the back.

As the back of the carriage moved into view of the footman, he noticed the extra passenger and raised his arm to call out to the driver. Cindra quickly dug into her purse and tossed some silver coins at the footman, holding her finger to her lips to beg for his silence. The jingling of coins caught his attention immediately and he thought the better of raising an alarm. The footman stooped to pick up the silver, muttering to himself in amazement, “Three silver Calimarks? Tha’s about three days wages!” He looked up at the departing carriage. “Well, when you need a ride, you need a ride.”

Cindra held her breath as the carriage crossed the courtyard and passed through the gatehouse. As it moved under the portcullis and into the bailey, she felt a laugh bubble up inside of her, quiet and potent, making her shake. She leaned over the side of the luggage shelf and looked around to see forward, watching as they moved under the large gatehouse and into the Highcourt. This was farther than she had ever traveled unsupervised, and she counted herself lucky that she had hitched a ride with the Gordons, for they were commoners and no doubt lived further into the city. Her journey might be a long one indeed! To improve matters, they had ceased to speak in such loud voices since there was no one about to impress.

The chill of the night was hard to ignore, but Cindra did her best. She was for all purposes alone and on her own, and it was better than she had dreamed. The ground was receding just inches below her dangling feet, and the bumps along the road made her feel as though she might be dislodged any moment. The spinning wheels tossed up dirt and grass, and the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves brought to mind a song, but she could not remember the words. The noble residents of the Highcourt went about their nightly lives, unaware of the great caper unfolding outside their doors.

The stars shone brightly and the moon was full, and the world was bathed in a new light. The castle grew smaller in the distance as the carriage bore her away, and Cindra began to wonder if this excursion was entirely wise. After all, the city at night was an unknown, more so than the day, for there were fewer people about after sunset, and their intentions were… questionable.  She decided that as long as she kept her wits about her and stayed on the main streets, she would be all right. After all, she was highly educated, as many noble women were. She could read and write Aurilonian, her mother’s language, as well as a bit of Rok, Norsican and Celvestrian. She knew her history, her numbers (as much as were needed for the care of household finances), and she was well versed in law, being as she was, somewhat in a position of authority. She was certain that she was up to the challenge of exploring her own city, for the common people did it all the time.

 

Tonight was Nixy’s night. He’d spent the last few years trying to prove himself to the rest of the lads, and to Dexer, and tonight was his big test. He’d be going alone into the streets, no bushers, no dodgers, and no help. He’d pass or fail, live or die. Well, maybe not die, but one never knew. At worst if he got away without the grab, he’d be made to sleep out o’doors, and that was bad on a night like tonight. Cold, it was, but not so cold he couldn’t keep his fingers warm. All he needed was quick hands and a sharp knife.

His knife was the sharpest. Cutter, he called it, simple name for a simple fact; it could cut leather like butter, never grew dull as long as he’d had it, and was his most prized possession. It was his only possession too, except for the clothes on his back, for the knife belonged to his mother, and it passed to him when he left home. Now he’d put it to work and show them all he was ready.

Cricket and Daymi were there, watching him like dogs, like he was a sausage. They’d been made brothers years back, and were set to watch the test. They’d tell Dexer how he did, and let him know if his training and trust had been wasted or not. Nixy never wanted to cross Dexer, for he was just as likely to beat you as look at you if he was in a foul mood. Nixy was one of his favorites, if the others were to be believed, but that made things more dangerous. Cricket and Daymi might let their jealousy get the better of them and let him take a fall. Nixy wasn’t made yet, so anything could happen.

“You got yer nerves up, Nixy?” said Daymi, the pushy one with dark, curly hair. “You ready to do what’s necessary, night rules and all?”

Cricket chirped in with his pinched little laugh, “Night rules. Stab’s as good as grabs,” he grinned, picking skin off his lower lip and staring at Nixy through long greasy hair.

Nixy was defiant, saying, “I don’t need no stabs. I kin skin a mark with my blinkers closed, and him none the wiser.” He gripped the black, raven-headed handle of Cutter, but kept it sheathed; he didn’t show off his prize knife to these two.

The two watchdogs weren’t impressed. “We’ll see about that, DuQuayne,” said Daymi, using Nixy’s family name. Made brothers didn’t have family names, because they caused trouble for the people back home. Nixy wasn’t that worried; his mother was already dead, and his father lived far from the city, probably didn’t even know his son was in Portshia. He had no other kin, so Daymi using his family name was no threat, except it was a reminder that he wasn’t one of them yet. He decided to keep quiet, because it was always the best idea.

The watchdogs led Nixy down the wide alleys to the Market Square, with its tents and stalls closed for the night and the shops all locked down tight. There were a few places where people sat with their fires and blankets, having too much to move for the evening or no place else to go. Nixy was sure there would be a chance to prove his skills here, and he told the watchers he would work the area. They laughed at him of course, for the Market Square was used to thieves, pickpockets and greedy hands, and was always on the lookout for suspicious types. No matter, Nixy was firm on the idea, and slipped into the shadows.

The watchdogs looked at each other, a bit more impressed. Nixy was a pompous little bastard sometimes, but he had a knack for the shadows that the two had never seen. Dexer was impressed too, and that meant something. Nixy would come back with a grab, or a grab and a bloody knife, or not at all, if he was smart.

 

Cindra’s carriage was rolling through the dark streets, passing wizard lamps. The glowing orbs of blown glass were suspended from scrolled iron hangers at every street corner. There were people going into taverns and warm-looking apartments, people standing in doorways talking and smoking pipes, and a few striders about going no place in particular. The scene was perfectly ordinary and perfectly thrilling to the young girl’s eyes. The two and three story buildings were angular and simple, with plastered walls, curved red brick shingles, and arched doors and windows. Balconies and empty planters adorned the upper floors, waiting for warmer weather and use. Shop windows with heavy shutters and colorful awnings gave distinction to the uniform streets, and trees with winter-bare branches cast skeletal shadows along the moonlit avenues. The main streets themselves were wide and paved with flat stones, and gutters fed rainwater into sewers, like those used in ancient Celvestria. The sewers led to the canals that surrounded the three smaller districts of the city, providing protection from invasion once the bridges were raised and the gates shut. Cindra’s carriage was now turning and passing through one such gate and over a bridge. Over the tops of the buildings Cindra saw the Tower of the Silver Moon.

The structure was among the tallest freestanding towers in the world. It was built a century ago over a period of ten years by the Order of Astrellaris, using the finest masons and craftsmen, and held fast by mystical building and binding techniques acquired from many lands. The tower was wider at the base and tapered as it rose until it widened into a bulge, narrowed again, and widened at the summit. The utmost pinnacle was topped with a great orb three times the height of a man, and formed of copper. It glowed brightly, mimicking the phases of the moon by means of a special enchantment. Twelve stone ribs that ran from bottom to top supported the tower, and were covered in copper plates which had since turned to greenish patina. Cindra had only seen the edifice this close during the day, on family outings to the cathedral. At night, its full splendor made her eyes water in the chill air.

As the driver slowed to take a turn onto the bridge, Cindra thought she heard one of the Gordons mention her name in their quiet conversation. A tingle went down her spine as she suspected they were aware of her presence, but nothing followed to confirm this. She decided they were only discussing the banquet and had not detected their passenger. Cindra strained her ears to listen to what they were saying about her but the driver had completed his turn and began across the bridge; the noise of the wheels on the stones made eavesdropping impossible.

The carriage crossed over to the Harbor District, with its warehouses, raucous taverns, and bawdy houses. She caught a glimpse of masts and sails, and barges tied up for the night. She could hear the lowing of the water oxen as they drifted and splashed about at their moorings. Then the carriage turned and was crossing another bridge farther north into the city, heading for the Temple Walk and the Market Square. The keep was still visible in the moonlight, its whitewashed walls gleaming, but it was so very far away now. She imagined her mother and father, unsuspecting of her absence, getting sleepy on winter mead and boring conversation. Her mother would turn in first, leaving the count to chat with the important guests a little longer and plan for the future, or just drink. They would likely not check on her until morning, and Mineth was taking up the bed in case anyone looked in to see if she was all right. For the time it took her to conceive and execute this plan, it was an amazing success. She wondered if perhaps the ruse about the gods willing her to leave tonight was not entirely false, for her adventure seemed charmed or blessed from the start. She decided to say a little prayer of thanks as they passed the cathedral, if indeed they were going that way. And so they were.

As the carriage rolled on between the temple of Obamir and the darkened Market Square, Cindra saw the fires. There were people, probably merchants or vagabonds, camping in the open on the cobblestone plaza. One fire caught her attention, and as the carriage slowed a bit to more easily navigate the sparse crowd, she followed the impulse to leap off the luggage shelf. She stumbled a bit but regained her feet quickly, and took a moment to straighten her belt, purse, and cloak. It was bitter cold, but more bearable now that there was no breeze from movement, and the fires looked inviting. She walked cautiously towards the arched columns that lined the square and took to the shadows to watch what caught her attention.

There was a caravan in the square, a horse-drawn wagon with a curved wooden roof, gaily painted in the colors of autumn. It bore trim of angled designs and images of frolicking horses, and the sides were hung with baskets and barrels, pots and pans, and many items that the owners were likely selling. The fire was lit in a standing brazier, for the night watch forbade campfires on the street, and a family of Galindri was tending its warming glow; real Galindri, the people of the plains and forests who traveled with the seasons and the furdeer herds and who once held great favor with Kraal himself. The ancient king had given them exclusive rights to go where they willed and live as they once did before the coming of the empire, and the Galindri were the most free-willed people of Calilon. Cindra moved closer for a look, smelling the exotic food being prepared and listening to their strange tongue.

There were five adults, two men and three women. They all had dark skin; the color of wet clay, and emerald green eyes that seemed to shine in the firelight, piercing against their dark faces. The men and women kept their hair in long braids or thickened strands that they tied into topknots, all save one, a younger woman of perhaps sixteen years, who wore her hair unbound. The men wore loose fitting shirts of bright colors, and trousers with knee-high wrapped boots of leather. The women wore layered skirts and loose blouses that left the midriff partially uncovered; it was a style that carried over to the bolder members of Calilonian society, though often not polite society. One of the women, fuller of figure, was serving a man whose gray hair and lined face marked him as an honored elder. Next, she served the younger man, whom Cindra assumed was her husband by the way they interacted. The youngest woman was tending her hair, which seemed dark gold in the firelight, and the last woman… she seemed to be standing watch, watching Cindra as she spied on their meal.

This one was tall, perhaps as tall as the countess, and had a stern but beautiful face. About her brow was a burgundy strip of cloth or leather, divided by a dark line or pattern. Her topknot was bound in a crimson cloth, and her clothing was the color of coral and the red sands of the coast. She wore skirts that stopped at the knee, and fur-lined boots of leather; about her waist hung two knives or daggers in sheaths, and her wrists were wound with leather straps, making her look almost… warrior-like. Perhaps she was a hunter? Cindra did not know much about the Galindri or their ways, but had assumed that the men hunted and the women tended their caravans or tents, or whatever they lived in at most times. This woman did not look as though she cooked much; unless it was something she caught herself. The dark, imposing beauty made a rapid hissing noise and waved her hand at Cindra, as if scaring off a dog. The others looked up from their meal at the lone girl, hiding in the half-light. Caught off guard and unused to being treated like a mere pest, Cindra backed up a bit and moved on, petulant but still fascinated. The soft chuckling of the Galindri let her know that her trespass was not serious.

She had seen real Galindri and their caravan! This night was getting better by the moment. She walked further on, avoiding the other fires, and headed out of the Market Square and towards the Tower of Sight, another one of her tourist destinations.

 

Nixy had a mark in his sights, an easy one, by the looks of it. She was alone and wandering, with no clear purpose, and that told him a lot. New in town, or lost, she was staring at the wizard’s tower without a care in the world. He’d wait till she turned the corner, out of sight of the fires, and out of earshot if something went wrong. There was a tavern up the street a bit so there might be folks about; he’d have to choose his time careful. Night was different than day, when there were so many people wandering the streets it didn’t matter if someone saw; you could lose yourself in the crowd and be off before they knew you’d grabbed their coin. But at night, you had to be good with the escape, and make sure there was no one around to get in the way. Tricky, but Nixy was up for it. Day grabs were kid’s stuff, anyhow.

He edged around the corner of the market, watching the girl gaze at the tower. Nixy didn’t really care for the Tower of Sight, it was grand enough with its white ivy-covered walls and shiny dome, and the lights up there were unnatural but pretty. What disturbed Nixy were the times he had slept nearby in an alley or doorway surrounding the tower. Dreams came to him those nights, dreams that were strange and sometimes made him wake with a start: the raven in the woods, the beautiful woman with the strange eyes, the black wolves hiding in the shadows, the man and the monster, the dragons. He’d only have those dreams when sleeping near the tower, and figured there was some magic there that was to blame. He used to sleep there out of curiosity to see what his dreams would show him, but that was before they got too terrifying. He slept elsewhere now.

The girl was moving north and east towards the festival grounds. Nixy followed at a distance, his cloth foot-wraps barely making a sound. He’d have to strike soon or she might turn onto a busier street. The tavern was up ahead, and he prayed for a moment that she didn’t go in. She didn’t look like a pub doxy or serving wench, but you never knew. She paused at the door as a man entered, greeting his friends within. Nixy held his breath as she peeked in the windows and lingered a bit after the door shut, but he relaxed when she kept on walking. Nixy nodded his head in thanks to Obamir the Luck Giver, and smiled at the carved symbol of three tumbling coins that was set above the tavern’s doorway. Just a few more steps, just a few more….

He drew Cutter from its sheath, and the cold metal flashed in the shadows.

 

Cindra wanted to go inside. The tavern looked warm and inviting, as she assumed taverns would be, but she thought the better of it. There were no girls her age inside, and the large, sturdy woman holding a tray gave her a stern look before closing the door. It was probably best to avoid drawing attention to herself, she decided. If anyone found out who she was, she could be in real trouble, and all of her plans would be for naught. She moved away from looking in the tavern window and continued up the street towards the corner light. It occurred to her that if someone truly recognized her walking the streets alone at night, they might have other things in mind besides turning her over to her father. If someone was bold or stupid enough to try and ransom her back to the count, they might make her a hostage and steal her away to another country. This idea did not give her comfort as she went along, and she resolved to find a carriage and hire a ride back to the keep as soon as possible. She glanced nervously over her shoulder and, to her dismay, saw a shadow move against the wall. Either her mind was playing tricks on her, or she was in a very bad situation. Cindra quickened her pace towards the light around the corner.

The street opposite her corner was lined with trees and beyond in the moonlight she saw the walls of the king’s Winter Palace. He would normally be in residence there, but for a sickness that made him unwell to travel from the capitol in the west. The trees lined the grounds where festivals were held, and the breeze blew a bit more briskly here. She made her way around the corner and found herself standing under a glowing street lamp, its enchanted fires burning cold and bright within the glass orb. As she looked about to get her bearings, she heard a scuffling sound behind her. Terror hit the pit of her stomach and all her skin went cold, and she felt a hand move at her waist under her cloak. A knife blade flashed in the light, white against the shadows surrounding the street lamp. There was a slight tug at her waist and a burst of motion beside her, and as she spun about with a shriek on her lips, she saw her attacker bolting towards the trees.

He was a child, clad in rags and tatters and clutching her purse to his chest as he ran. His mussed blond hair flew wild as his hood blew off, and his shabby cloak fluttered in the wind of his passage. Cindra’s fear turned to outrage and shame; she had been robbed by a street urchin! Her arms went stiff at her sides and she shouted in a voice reserved for frightening servant children, “Hey! Stop!” It did not have the desired effect. She would have to run the little brat down.

She hiked up her wool skirt and sprinted after the fleeing child, her longer legs giving her an immediate advantage. The boy hazarded a glance behind him, and his eyes widened in shock as Cindra matched his pace. He made for the fair grounds and scampered under the wooden stands built at one corner of the jousting field. He waited for the girl to follow him in where he seemed trapped, then he ducked under some low support beams and escaped into the open, hoping her height was fouling her up in the confined space. Cindra cursed and removed herself from under the stands, now resolute to catch him since she had been tricked. She gulped the chill air and ran until her legs burned, closing the distance with the little thief as she passed through the grandstand portal.

Nixy was confounded. Who was this girl, fool as she was, chasing him through the streets? If it weren’t for his test, he could have led her right to the bushers, and they would have slowed her up permanent if they had the mind. But he was alone, and the watchers wouldn’t help, probably laughing at him right now, but she didn’t know that. Was she really that stupid? Or was there a lot of money in this purse? It felt like it held more than a few coins. He could hear her running behind him, getting close. He had to get away from open ground, into narrower alleys and places with quick turns, even a crowd of people where he could lose her. She was just too fast, like a cat on a mouse, a mouse with no boltholes. He didn’t like being a mouse.

Cindra passed under the high boxes of the grandstand and into the street, where the little thief was heading into a gated plaza. Many of the buildings in the city were arranged in rectangular blocks enclosing a central courtyard, each side having at least one gateway onto the street. The boy was heading into one such enclosure that contained a small temple with a high steeple, topped with a round orb. It was likely a temple of Lieutrella, goddess of the moon and Lady of Secrets. The area ahead was illuminated, but she saw no worshipers around to call out to, no one to stop the thief’s progress. Luckily, Cindra was right behind him.

Nixy was jerked back by the neck, a strangled choke escaping his mouth. Cindra had reached out and grabbed his cloak, yanking him off his feet and forcing him to tumble to the ground. He dropped his knife and the stolen purse as Cindra stumbled over his prone form. The impact was harsh on the cobblestones, made more so by the cold, and the two children were stunned for a moment, out of breath and jarred by the fall. Cindra regained herself first and seeing the boy’s knife, lunged for it. Nixy rolled onto his back to get out from under her legs when suddenly she was upon him, pressing the cold metal of his own blade at his throat.

“D-don’t kill me!” He gasped, realizing that he had not only failed his test, but might die before Dexer ever got his hands on him. The anger in the girl’s eyes was not decreasing his fear.

Cindra, panting and furious, leaned in close to further frighten the little thief. She had no desire to kill him, and wondered at herself that she seemed so inclined to act like it. She assumed it was her sense of justice that made her want to scare the boy into an honest life, but there was also a thrill coursing up her spine that felt almost primal and savage. She pushed that feeling aside and focused on the cowering child beneath her.

“I am not going to kill you,” she breathed a few times before continuing, “But I want my purse back.”

“Oh, this? Sure, here ya go.” The boy reached over and retrieved her purse, offering it up to her. The fear in his eyes was rapidly diminishing.

She snatched the purse from him and sought a way to reattach it to her belt, her fingers fumbling in the cold as she tried to keep hold of the knife. Finally she fastened it to her satisfaction and stood, letting the boy up.

“Pestilent little vermin, I should see you whipped!” She rearranged her cloak and skirt, trying to make herself presentable should the city watch arrive.

Nixy was on his feet, looking up at her with his head level to her shoulders. She’d caught him, but he wasn’t done with her yet; she still held his knife, his mother’s knife. He figured, since she said she wouldn’t kill him, it might be all right to try and make conversation.

“You talk kinda funny,” he said, still trying to figure out what ‘pestilent’ might mean. Probably nothing nice.

Cindra was shocked at the impudence of the boy, who was in no position to be cheeky. “I do not talk funny,” she said, looking down her nose at him. “I’ll have you know I speak perfect Calilesh.”

“See? Tha’s funny.” Nixy thought she was a bit snooty for a… whatever she was. Her clothes weren’t nice, but weren’t shabby either. Maybe she served in a good house? She didn’t smell bad, so she must bathe once in awhile too.

“So… if ya just gimme my knife back, I’ll be going,” he started hopefully. She ignored him. “Maybe I kin show you around if yer lost. You look lost.”

Cindra was looking about, trying to get her bearings. She turned to him and said defensively, “I am not lost. Go away before I turn you in.”

Nixy remembered his watchers and wondered if he still might save his test. “Ya know there are more out there, and bigger than me. I kin guide you so you’ll be safe.” Cindra started wandering off and he followed, not letting his knife and his grab get away so easily. “There’s baggers out there, and cut-throats and slavers,” he embellished a bit, “…and ghosts and trolls. You don’t wanna be out here alone.”

“Are you to be my bodyguard now?” Cindra sniffed at him, beginning to feel weak in the knees from her run and tumble. She wondered where the best place to find a carriage might be, but she wasn’t going to lower herself to ask this scamp.

“Naw, I’m jus’ saying, I kin keep you out of trouble.” Maybe she would give him some coin for being a guide, he thought.

Cindra was having none of it. “Look, you little cut-purse,” she said, pointing his knife in his face, “I wasn’t in trouble until you came along. Now get yourself lost before I call the city watch!”

Nixy faced her, hands on hips. He was going to get his knife if he had to get her to stick it in him. “Stab me with it if you hafta, but leave me my knife! You got yer stupid purse back.”

Cindra opened her mouth to retort, ready to give the boy a lecture he would not soon forget, but the words did not come out. Her voice died in a squeak as a shiver ran down her body, for just behind the boy was a shape moving down the wall of the temple. It was the shape of a man, but it moved with a crab-crawl, picking its way down the sheer wall onto the street below. Upon touching the ground, it lurched into the light with twitching, stuttering movements, long bony fingers outstretched and shoulders hunched, like an obscene puppet. He moved too fast.

The man was dressed in rags, filthy and stained, and his dark hair was wild about his head. His black beard was bedraggled and tangled, and his hollow cheeks supported large, staring eyes that seemed to bulge with each raspy breath. His flesh was stretched tight across his bony frame, and was the color of tallow. His feet were bare and clutched the cobblestones with long toenails, and his fingers ended in similar ragged claws. He was boring his eyes into the back of the boy’s blond head.

Nixy felt his blood go cold at the look on the girl’s face. He was about to glance behind him when a strong, bony hand grabbed his shoulder and claws dug into his skin. The boy let out a scream that died in the air as soon as it left his mouth, and the hand wrenched him around to face his attacker. His worst nightmare was clutching him in an unbreakable grip: Black Will, the one who killed helpless people in the dark of night, the one mothers warned their children about to make them obey. But he was just a story. He wasn’t right here, dragging him into a dark alley behind the temple. He was just a story.

The nightmare man spoke in a hoarse, doubled voice, like two people rasping through one throat. “Need you boy… need your blood, scream won’t help.” He walked backwards into the alley with his lurching gait, dragging the poor doomed child along. Nixy screamed for all he was worth, but Cindra, being mere feet away, could barely hear him. She raised her voice as well, looking around for someone, anyone, who could help. There were shadows of people walking by just outside the courtyard gate, but her voice was useless. All she could do was stand and watch, the knife hanging forgotten in her hand.

Need your blood, father’s blood, Blood Magic, Blood Magic…” Black Will rasped.

The knife? She had a knife! She forced her eyes down from the monster-man to her shaking hand, where the boy’s purse-cutter was held. It was sharp and beautiful, with a Shadowood handle carved into a raven’s head. The blade was irregular, with a curved, pointed spine and a wicked tip, and the metal looked white in the moonlight. The primal, savage feeling rose within her again, and she resolved not to let this boy be slaughtered before her eyes. She found a well of courage in the pit of her stomach that rose and spread to her arms and legs, giving her strength and motion. Before she could think or plan, she was rushing at the man as he hunched over the terrified child, and with all the strength in her arm, she thrust the blade into the small of his back.

A howl of pain arose in his throat, two voices crying out at once, like a pair of dogs baying at the night. Cindra looked up at the man’s head and was horrified, for a shape had leaped from his body as if the knife had driven it out; they were his bones, or the shape of his bones, black and wraithlike, as if they were made of solid smoke. The bones twisted in pain, the eye sockets glowing like furnaces. The black skull turned to grimace at her and then leapt back into the man’s body as he spun and caught her by the throat.

When he spoke again, his voices were more distinct; a man’s raspy tone, strained by pain and thirst, and a voice from the darkness of the Abyss, torturous to hear, oozing dread.

Girl… soon dead girl. Girl hurts with pretty knife.”

The fiend’s talon tightened about her neck, and Cindra felt the blood welling in her head, her ears pounded and her eyes bulged as he threatened to pop her head from her shoulders. In desperation she crossed her knife arm over his wrist and, using her last ounce of strength and breath, slashed the nightmare man across the cheek. The point cut deeply below his left eye, metal flashing and ringing with the stroke. He released his grip and stumbled back into the boy, who was trapped in the alley. A horrible cry of pain and anguish arose from the man’s chest, and the ghastly bones leaped forth again, towering above them all. Within the ribcage was a glow like a distant fire, and where her blade had struck upon the left cheek were plumes of red flame, spewing forth sparks and smoke from the ashen skull. Black Will’s cheek bled freely from his damaged flesh, and his lurching movements echoed those of the blackened bones hovering above him.

Girl cut through flesh! Girl cut… ME!” It cried out, the spectral wound flashing upon its terrible visage. Its furnace eyes glowed with hatred and, Cindra thought, something else. She coughed and gagged as she readied her blade for another attack, when the specter did something she was unprepared for. The bones leaped back into the man’s body and, in a blur of speed and inhuman agility, he jumped and spun in midair, clutching the wall and scurrying up to the roof like a frightened lizard; in a moment he was out of sight. The boy shuffled over to her, not taking his eyes from the rooftop. “Is he gone?” he said, now able to speak and be heard.

“I think so,” Cindra offered, holding the knife above her like a shield. “I think it got… scared.” The idea was preposterous, but she was grateful.

“You saved me. He was gonna kill me, and you saved me.” The boy began to cry and, like the frightened child he was but could seldom be, he clung to Cindra and sobbed freely on her dress. She placed her arms uncertainly about him, trying to be of some comfort; though she was at her wit’s end herself. It seemed the proper thing to do.

Still, something was not right. She felt hopelessness and fear sinking into her skin, as though this night’s actions were all for nothing. The boy would die, despite her heroics, and she would be unable to stop it. The boy felt it too, for he stiffened and his sobbing grew choked, as if waiting for a killing stroke to fall. Cindra had had enough of this.

“I’m going to call the watch, but don’t be afraid. Call them with me. Yell as loud as you can.” She took him by the hand and they ran towards the nearest gateway, shouting loud enough to wake the dead, not that they would have wished to, for they had enough to worry about.

Above the courtyard, perched on the moon orb atop the temple spire, a shadow hissed in dismay. The cowardly Black Will had fled in pain over the rooftops, leaving Paugh to fend for itself. Leathery skin stretched over bony joints as the horned head peered below. It had sent a pall of despair upon the children to paralyze them, but the girl was braver than most. No matter. If the Guadim had learned anything in its countless years, it was patience. With a sickening pop and creak, it unfolded vast wings of putrid flesh and, leaping from the spire, it began to follow the children as they ran shouting towards the light.