Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright December 26th, 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.
The conversation hadn’t gone exactly as he’d hoped.
Nathanius retraced his steps back to the apartment, shifting along the snow-bound edges of Selapak’s narrow streets. His boots crunched. There were no tracks to step in. Only those with urgent business bothered to go out this late in the year. He checked the position of the sun, struggling low on the horizon. The long night would arrive soon.
A week. Perhaps two.
And a crisis alongside.
Lon had only revealed enough for him to begin. Tormar was preparing to invade. The Jaspers’ recently-acquired in-house sorcerer—an elvish academic from Sylarea—had foreseen it some weeks ago. Since then they had been expending every effort to muster a defence, not an easy task this close to the night, and there was a problem.
Actually, there were two.
The first problem was that the enemy had someone inside. It was his job was to find out who. The second and by far more dangerous problem was that from the way Lon was talking about it, Nathanius was pretty sure his old friend already knew who it was. He just didn’t like the answer. And if he knew, his brothers knew.
The investigation was a sham.
Lon was stalling, and that meant there was no good end to this little mole hunt.
At least it was his kind of assignment. A few days and nights and he would be at the bottom of it. He’d report his findings to Lon and let him and his brothers handle the rest.
He unlocked their room. Ellyn was right where he left her, practicing guitar on her bed. Asterious was still unaccounted for.
Nathanius lay down across the room. It had two beds. Ellyn took the first. He and Asterious alternated for the other. It was Asterious’s turn, but he wasn’t around so…
Ellyn looked up.
“How did it go?”
He stared up at the ceiling.
“Lon thinks they’ve got a turncoat. He wants me to find them. I think he already knows, which means it’s a giant waste of time. I don’t suppose you heard anything.”
She shook her head.
“They never sent for me. I guess everybody’s busy.”
“You’ll want to make yourself available in the main house. The more visible you are, the more likely someone will ask you to play. Try to make yourself seem indispensable. ”
She raised an eyebrow.
“I am indispensable.”
The conversation lapsed. Ellyn started plucking out a tune. Nathanius listened quietly. Her music really was quite beautiful, and there was something familiar about the tune that cheered his commonly solemn mood.
He leaned up.
“You know a lot of Sylarean music.”
“I learned in the chora.”
She shook her head.
“Lot of old families there.”
“Did you grow up in the capital?”
“No, I grew up in Myle. Do you know it?”
She shook her head.
“It’s nothing special. Not much more than a caravel stop for shore-runners and spice merchants.”
“You don’t sound like you miss it.”
He smiled and lay back down.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
There was another pause. She started playing again. This time it had a jaunty beat. He chuckled.
“Trying to cheer me up?”
“Play to your audience.”
“Keep it up and you’ll be known all over Kalkonu.”
She shot him a wry grin.
“At long last, my dreams of fame and fortune have come true.”
“Well, at least you can take credit for getting us all this far.”
She kept playing.
“I don’t know about that. If it weren’t for Asterious, we probably all would have died back in Misery, and if it weren’t for you I’m sure we’d have been stranded somewhere else. There’s plenty of credit to go around.”
Nathanius thought back to their first night on the trail.
“You remember that night in the holdfast outside Misery, when Asterious said we would be fine as long as we stuck together.”
She chuckled and pulled her hair back into a rough tail, mimicking their friend’s expression.
“We’ve got the three of us. No one else can say that.”
“Do you think this is what he was talking about?”
She gave him a sceptical look.
“I don’t think he thinks that far ahead.”
“I suppose not.”
He wasn’t sure. The more he learned about him, the more he discovered that Asterious was a man of many questions. No one could survive long in the world thinking and acting the way he seemed to, and yet meanwhile, all around him, things just seemed to…come together. Was it luck, or was it him?
Well if it was luck, they would be needing a whole lot more soon enough.
“But you trust him?”
Ellyn lay down.
“Gotta trust something.”
Nathanius chuckled. Asterious’s words.
He went to sleep.
Polly marched. The snow came up to her knees, but she only had to make it a few more blocks; then she could put her feet up.
Her friend had moved out of her place in the merchant’s quarter. It would be too dangerous to stay there through the night. The whole city knew that there was food, fuel, and magic there. If you stuck around you were just asking to get robbed and murdered in the dark. It was safer on the outskirts of the city, if you could find someplace secure.
Or make one.
Her friend had bricked herself into a third-floor walk-up in one of the denser blocks of the city’s twisting slums. As long as the building didn’t catch fire she would be alright.
The two of them had met by chance. Polly had been tossed out of her own shelter, the third time in as many years. Nobody kept a thief around when was nothing left to steal. She’d sought shelter from roving gangs in the endless maze of Selapak’s lower residences. At the end of her rope and freezing, she’d outrun a pack of wild dogs by climbing up to an abandoned fire-escape. She’d planned to die there. But at least she wouldn’t be eaten. The wind whipping across her perch would have finished her off in a matter of hours. She’d hoped to be asleep for most of it. Imagine her surprise when the wall behind her opened to reveal a friendly face.
Ninah was a Halfling too, about her own age, with blonde hair and a bright, round face. She was an apothecary by trade, sent up for poisoning the son-in-law of her liege lord in Gelande.
She said she didn’t do it.
They’d spent the rest of the winter together. It was a kindness that Polly would never forget. Here they were, a year later, and it was happening all over again, another turn of the brutal and endless cycle. The long night was coming, crisis was in the air, and the bosses were cutting staff. She’d survived the first cull, but the night was long, and she was through pinning her hopes on her employers.
Azarelle had a plan. One way or another, the two of them were going to survive, and if need be, Polly would take Ninah with them.
She knocked on the floor. The doors and windows gone, bricked shut and plastered over. It looked just like an empty hall, but just like last year her friend had rigged a hidden entrance and exit from her warren, in case of emergency. This time it was a couple of loose boards. You could use the space between the joists to wriggle in under the “wall.”
A voice whispered.
She whispered back.
She heard something slide. Polly took a quick look back down the hall, leaned down, popped the floorboard loose, and scuttled in.
The apartment was warm. Her friend had a stove in the middle of the floor. The walls were covered in heavy wool blankets for insulation. It was like a mouse hole. There was a pile of dried food, a table against the wall for work, and a bed in the corner heaped with the same fluff that covered the walls.
Her friend helped pull her up through the floor. She kicked the snow off her boots. Ninah went to the stove.
She reached into her pack and drew out a few bundles of salt-packed fish and dried meat, leftovers from the first wave of Valis’s supplies. She handed them over.
Ninah took them.
“Where’d you get these?”
Polly sat by the stove.
“A new friend.”
“The same one who gave you this?”
Ninah held up the potion she’d filched from Valis. Polly nodded.
“The same. And I didn’t say he gave it to me.”
Ninah went to the wall and slid open a narrow wooden panel. It led to the outside, where she’d nailed a flower box to the wall. She stuck out a hand and brushed in a pile of snow to fill the kettle. She sat down. Polly took the bottle from her.
“So was I right? Is it a potion?”
Her friend shook her head.
“If it is, it’s not like any magic that I’ve ever seen.”
“You meant you haven’t figured it out? I thought you said you were the best?”
Her friend turned and gave her a flat look. Polly relented.
“Okay, okay. I know you’re the best. How much longer?”
“A few days. Right now all I can tell you is that it isn’t an enchantment and it isn’t poison.”
The kettle started to boil. Her friend poured them each a cup. The tea smelled like wood.
Polly drank it.
“It was all anybody had left. I made my last trades two days ago. I’m hibernating from here out, once I finish your job, of course.”
Polly slurped down her tea.
“I’ll leave you to it then.”
Ninah gave her a hug on the way out. Polly heard the same bolt slide into place as she wriggled back out into the hall. Ninah would be fine. Polly made her way outside.
One or two loose ends left, but there was still time. Az was meeting with Valis. Tonight they would decide their next move. Done and dusted.
A shadow shifted as she went out the door.
Polly turned and ran as a pair of arms reached out from the darkness behind her, missing her by inches. She looked back. There were two. She took off down the street.
An arm swept out from an alley in front of her. She tried to duck, but it was too late. The limb caught her in the chest like a swung log, driving the wind out of her. She coughed and fell back into the snow.
They’d been waiting for her.
A gloved hand closed over her mouth. She squirmed, gave a muffled scream, and went still. There was a knife against her throat.
They dragged her into the alley and through an open door, pulling her down a hall into an empty room. Her thoughts raced. A chair. A table. A single candle. Dark silhouettes inhabited every corner. She didn’t need to imagine the horrors. In her time she’d lived through them all.
A tall figure detached from the shadows and approached. The candle gave light to his dark face.
Polly looked up. Shit.
The eldest Jasper nodded.
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