Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
“So…how did it go?”
Azarelle kept her head in her pillows and groaned. Polly stood over her and regarded her friend with a frown. She could always tell when she was bummed.
Azarelle nodded, face still buried.
Polly sat down beside her. She’d come around fishing for another job. Her losing streak at the tables was apparently still going strong.
“Are we going to be invaded?”
She nodded again.
Polly stood up.
“It’s true. One or two months from now, right after the long dark settles in. Tormar’s armies are already dead. They don’t mind the cold.”
Polly went to the window.
“How do you know for sure?”
Azarelle rolled over.
“I saw it: an army of shadows marching through the dark.”
“How can you be sure it was here?”
“Oh, it was here.”
“How do you know?”
“I was with Lon. He would never leave the city.”
Polly looked out over the streets and on to the horizon. It was snowing more and more lately.
Bad news. It was all she was getting these days. She turned from the window.
“Were you fighting?”
Her friend didn’t answer. Polly looked at her. She was wearing what was probably supposed to be a neutral expression. She never did have much of a poker face.
Polly was good at poker.
She went back to the bed, smiling.
“Az, what were you doing with Lon?”
Her friend sat up, hugging her pillow. She grumbled.
“None of your beeswax.”
Polly’s eyes went wide.
“Oh my god! You were having se—”
She dropped her voice to a whisper.
“Was he any good?”
Azarelle walloped her with the pillow across the face. Polly yelped and flopped over laughing.
“What? It’s a perfectly legitimate question? Besides, I’m curious.”
“Well, you sleep with him then.”
“Me!? I’m like three feet tall. I’d sprain something.”
“Can we drop this, please?”
Polly exasperated a breath.
She lay back and pouted.
The conversation lapsed. Polly found her thoughts drifting back to the coming winter. She’d had plans.
None of them would work now.
“Do we win?” she asked.
Azarelle shook her head.
“I don’t know. Maybe the Jaspers will come up with something, but it didn’t look good.”
“I don’t like zombies.”
“So what do we do? Should we leave? There’s still probably time to go south. We could make it to Hane, or maybe Coil. They’d let you into Coil. I could be your assistant.”
Azarelle shook her head.
“No. We have to stay, at least for a little while.”
“Help is coming.”
“An old man. He had two others with him.”
“How are they going to help?”
Azarelle shook her head again.
“I don’t know.”
Polly grumbled in frustration.
“What kind of crap is this augury stuff anyway?”
Azarelle covered her face and rubbed her eyes.
“A pain, that’s what. But at least Lon’s brothers were satisfied. That’ll buy us some time.”
“To do what?”
“Get ready. When it starts we’re going to need to move fast.”
“And I’m going to need some things.”
Polly exasperated a breath. She couldn’t resist her relief.
“Thank god. I was starting to feel a little short.”
Azarelle looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
“Didn’t I pay you last week?”
“I decided to treat myself one last time before winter.”
“Oh, you know. This and that. So what do you need?”
She felt bad lying to her friend. It was just that…well, she didn’t want her to be disappointed.
Azarelle grabbed a paper from her nightstand.
“Here’s the list.”
Polly looked it over. Her eyes trained up.
“This is a big list.”
“If we have to leave it might be a long time before I’m in a city like this again. I need to stock up while I can.”
“It’ll be expensive.”
Her friend nodded.
“I’ll get you the money. Can you do it?”
Polly sprang up and put her hands on her hips.
“Good. Be careful, okay?”
Azarelle laughed and went to the table.
“I’ve got work. How long do you think it will be for that order?”
Polly put the paper in her jacket.
“At least a week. Will that be soon enough?”
Azarelle thought for a moment.
“I think so. Just try to get the rarer items first.”
Polly headed for the door.
“I’ll do my best. Hey, when we go, should we invite Lon?”
“To keep you company.”
Azarelle gave her a flat look.
She laughed and went out the door, but stopped in the corridor and turned, regarding her friend quietly.
She looked up.
“You won’t leave me behind, will you?”
Her friend smiled.
“Never. I’m a lousy thief, and you make really good coffee.”
She left quietly. The estate was a maze, but she knew it by heart. She would swing by the kitchen and grab a bite on the way out. It would hold her over until she could get her hands on the first piece of Azarelle’s order. Then she would be back on top again.
Maybe the invasion was a good thing. It might put a stop to her gambling. She just couldn’t resist the tables. It was something about the flick of the cards, or the way the dice tumbled.
And all that money.
This time would be different. No more tables. Not until she and Azarelle were safe someplace for the winter. She took the list out: more gemstones. The jewellers segment was going to go bananas, and security was already a pain. This one was going to be tough.
The list went back in her pocket.
Time to get to work.
Azarelle watched Polly go. From her window she could see the street. It was muddy and full of slush from last night’s snow, but it was beginning to stick through the day. In six weeks it would bury everything, according to her friend. This would be her first winter on the subcontinent. It would last for almost half the year, and for a period of months the sun wouldn’t even crest the horizon. And on top of that, the invasion; for all she knew the concern this winter wouldn’t just be snow in the streets.
And then there was the letter.
She’d fallen asleep at her desk after she returned from preparing the augury. When she awoke the letter was in front of her. She’d thought it was from Lon.
The message was simple: Keep your secrets.
The words were followed by the name of a restaurant in Selapak’s central square, along with a time and date. Two days away, at noon.
Who had sent it?
It couldn’t have been Lon. He would have come to talk with her in person. He had plenty of excuses these days to visit her chamber. No one would have questioned it.
She read it again. It had to have been someone else, someone who knew what she’d been doing. And whoever they were they’d been observing her for days. Maybe longer.
Maybe a lot longer.
It sent a chill up her spine. She scanned the cityscape. They could be anywhere.
She shut the window and drew the curtains, slowly beginning to understand the Jaspers’ paranoia.
Keep your secrets.
There was one left.
A final vision, granted in the last moments of the augury: a dark angel soaring over the city, with blazing eyes trained squarely south. The image was so powerful it had almost disrupted the spell.
She hadn’t even told Polly. If the images she’d seen were real, it meant they were under a greater threat than the armies of Tormar. A war with their neighbour was one thing, but this…this was something else.
It had to be a mistake. The spell wasn’t perfect. Maybe her subconscious had bled through, or something from long term memory. She’d been over the topic at the academy.
She hoped and prayed that it was a mistake, but at the same time…she knew. She was very good at magic, and religion class was a long, long time ago.
There wasn’t much religion in the world, not since the Iiari. Some still worshiped the Faylene, others among the mages worshiped the Chord, but if there was one thing every schoolchild knew, it was this:
The gods were dead.
Azarelle stared at the note.
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