The Holanian capital, Adria. Rei-Hai Shaw knew it like the back of his hand. For the Tower to mark the city as his next hunting ground was both fortune and cruelty. Two years had passed since he last walked the streets of his homeland; he’d been a shadow then too, lost amongst the crowds gathered for the royal wedding of heir apparent, Crown Prince Kiokharen. But this time, Rei was not here for a celebration.
The Grand Cathedral of Nirhana stood nobly behind the castle proper. Secured within the gated domain of Upper Adria, it was not open to the general populace; the cathedral was the wedding chapel and worship venue of choice for the Holanian highborn. Rei had visited it a number of times in his youth—being the son of the reigning Swordmaster, Rei was privy to the inner circles of nobility. He was of age with the wayward Princess Amikharlia and had more or less grown up alongside the royal siblings. They’d often come to the cathedral to play, to see who could climb the highest up the ivy-coated walls. Rei always won.
It was high summer. Crickets chirped in the thick foliage of the bushes. Moths fluttered by on dusky wings. The gardens were dark—empty. In the depth of the night, Holanians packed taverns and not halls of the holy houses. There was no huge cause to guard a place of worship. Even the lowest of criminals held enough respect for the deities of old. A soldier patrolled the grounds, his movements marked by the pin-prick glow of a lantern. Rei perched on the lower branches of an evergreen and watched the floating light follow a predictable route. If these same measures were employed to patrol Castle Adria itself, Rei would write Kio immediately to have his security upgraded. Fortunately, for Rei’s own peace of mind, these footsoldiers guarded nothing of value—at least, not to Rei.
The ceremonial sword of Nirhana the Just came to rest in the cathedral following the fall of the Meytaran Empire. The Great King, Kiokharen the First, salvaged it from the ruins of the imperial palace in Ciraselo, and brought it home to Holania, when he raised the kingdom up in independence. The sword was the most revered artefact from Holanian history. And Rei-Hai Shaw was here to steal it.
The Tower’s orders were succinct: Procure Nirhana Blade. An unsealed strip of parchment had been pushed into Rei’s palm as he walked the streets of a village in western Bararn, en route to one of the Tower’s many safe houses where he had been residing. Rei never saw his employers. The headquarters were at the fringe of the world, well beyond the frozen waste of the Northern Kingdoms—or what was left of them. His orders came from faceless passersby, and his spoils delivered to indistinct locations to be moved on by yet another cog in the Tower’s ever turning wheel of influence over Whyt’hallen. Except this time. The Nirhana Blade was to be returned, in person, to the Tower, before the last leaves of autumn fell.
Rei’s footsteps made no sound as he leapt from the tree and stalked through the midnight-black garden. For all their peculiarities, his golden feline eyes afforded him impeccable vision. He navigated the darkness unencumbered, keeping to the edges to best avoid the lone guardsman. The cathedral rose before him in a great looming silhouette. Rei frowned as his eyes scanned the building’s façade. The stained glass windows were ornate and not at all functional, lacking hinges with which to draw them open. Smashing one seemed like a monumentally foolish decision. The guard may not be facing towards the cathedral but was still within ear shot.
I could just kill him.
The thought crossed Rei’s mind more than once. It was the cleanest solution. The poisons at his disposal were traceless, stopping the heart with no sign of malicious cause. All he need do was prick a strip of the guard’s exposed flesh—preferably the neck—and he would simply go to sleep. No pain, no mess, no suspicion. But the guard was a child of Holania. If not a boy Rei had trained with personally, then surely an acquaintance of someone from his past. A friend of Kio’s, perhaps? Rei’s hand hovered by his stash of poison-slicked needles but could not bring himself to draw one.
The grand double-doored entrance of the cathedral was unbolted but tightly closed. Moonlight shimmered on the silver embellishments of the oaken surface. Rei curled his hands around the curved handles, cool to his touch. He applied pressure, his teeth spearing into his lower lip in anticipation of audible protests. It slipped open without a breath.
Rei expected the grandeur of all the ceremonies he’d witnessed, with vibrant pops of floral bouquets and kaleidoscopic beams of light raining in through the stained-glass windows. But it was just a room. A hollow, empty room. Rei closed the door carefully. He felt the dull echo resonate around the space. It was wrong seeing the cathedral this way. Rei was often an intruder in places he was not welcome but here he truly felt it.
The Nirhana Blade sat nestled on a raised dais at the far end of the cathedral, serving as the centrepiece of the altar many a young couple stood before to be joined in marriage. The white marble bench was cloaked in a length of cerulean silk—the royal colours of Holania. Dust settled thickly upon it. The sword was even less to look at up close, with its tarnished scabbard and flaky, perished leather-bound hilt. Rei lifted it gingerly from the stand, half expecting it to crumble to dust in his hands. He didn’t wish to linger; guilt already grew heavy in his gut. With deft fingers he attached the worn belt around his hips and covered it beneath his cloak, secret and safe.
Rei retraced his steps back through the gardens, evaded the guard’s unchanging route, and escaped into the residential streets of Upper Adria. His mission was complete; he should leave the capital and make for the safe house in Gillah before sunrise. But the pull of home was strong. He found his feet taking him along familiar paths, across the rooftops of noble houses to the training hall in the city’s east. It sat lower than the two storey buildings surrounding it. The shallow roof was supported by thick round pillars, painted red in a rich lacquer that had them shining in the moonlight. The Swordmaster had the sliding doors of the training hall drawn open against the heat. A lantern flickered within.
Rei dropped down from a neighbouring rooftop on to veranda outside. Geraad Shaw sat cross-legged in the centre of the polished wooden floor, goblet of dark amber liquid in his hand. Holanian wheatwine—his father’s favourite. Geraad’s hair was thinner—and greyer—than Rei remembered but his rigid posture and callous eyes remained unchanged. Rei’s chest pounded, his stomach twisted in knots, as he slipped into the room and took a seat across from the aging man, as silent and inconspicuous as a stray cat. Geraad said nothing.
Rei reached across to take the golden of wine from Geraad’s hand and brought to his lips. It smelt like bread and berries. He grimaced as it raced down his throat in a warming ribbon.
‘How can you drink that stuff?’ Rei said, exaggerating a gag as he returned the glass to his father.
Geraad picked up his drink and glared across the top of it. ‘You’re still alive?’
Rei gave a wry smile. ‘Why yes, Father, I am.’
The man scoffed and drank deeply.
What am I doing here?
‘I was in Kessar recently,’ Rei said, reaching into the inner pockets of his tunic. ‘I found Grandma Tai-Na’s place. No one lives there now but everything is all there, untouched. I guess no one inherited the house after they passed. Mother was their only child after all.’ He held out a white handkerchief, carefully embroidered with sky blue flowers and scrawling lettering that spelt Piren-Ha. ‘They were fine fabric merchants, right? Lace, tapestries, silk? This must have been Mother’s, from when she was young. I guess she was still learning.’
Geraad snatched the handkerchief from Rei’s outstretched hand. He studied it with that critical gaze of his. Rei hoped his father would crack, soften, be overwhelmed with grief for his lost wife. He wanted to know if Geraad Shaw could feel.
But the Swordmaster was not that kind of man. He opened the latch on the lantern’s glass casing and held the cloth over the naked flame. It sputtered as the cotton fibres caught alight. Soon it was little more than ashes.
‘Do I strike you as a sentimental fool?’ Geraad growled. ‘Look around you, boy. What do you see? Trinkets? Etchings? Rubbish?’
Indeed the hall was sparsely decorated and nought but training poles and sparring blades lined the walls. Their family dwelling in the building adjacent had been similarly barren. Ami once said it was as inviting as a crypt. She wasn’t far from the truth—it was empty and cold and Rei always hated it.
‘You were the last memory I had to deal with,’ he spat. ‘You tarnished everything she was.’
‘Sorry, I always forget I asked the demonspawn to rape my mother to give me lif—’
‘I. Wasn’t. Finished.’ Geraad’s words were punctuated with venom. Rei flinched, anticipating the stinging pain that usually accompanied the old man’s temper. His father’s right hand remained curled around his drink. The veins in his neck pulsed.
‘Not only did you kill her but you soured our past with your very presence. The day the Tower stole you away was the best thing that happened since I lost her.’
Rei was grateful for his training, grateful for the emotion-stunting armour that had been rendered on to his being with the crack of a whip. For now it meant he didn’t react, didn’t even acknowledge the burn of his father’s searing hate. At least … that is what he told himself.
What am I doing here?
Rei stood and made for the doorway, for the rooftops of the sleeping city.
He paused. Hope rushed to his chest. How long had it been since his father used his name?
‘Show your face again and I’ll have you dragged from this city like the spying scum you are.’
Another wry smile spread across his lips. ‘Don’t worry. Father. I won’t give you that pleasure.’
Rei cursed himself as he wound through the streets towards the castle. What in him was so damaged that he chose to seek his father out, only to have him belittle and degrade him as he always had? For the thirteen years Rei lived with Geraad he’d been nothing but the outlet for the drunken man’s rage-laced grief. What did he expect to change in the seven he was away?
And if he reports this to the Tower I’m dead.
The realisation was a knife through his chest. As one of the elite brethren, Rei was permitted no contact with his former life, nothing that wasn’t sanctioned by Tower orders. Maybe Geraad didn’t know this; he certainly wouldn’t hesitate to rat him out if he did.
You stupid, fucking, fool.
And yet, his feet were taking him towards another place from his past. The walls of Castle Adria were surprisingly easy to scale. The first time Rei mastered the stone footholds of palace he had been seven years old and hoping to draw one of the royal siblings out of their chamber for fun and mischief. Ami always more than happily obliged. The windows of her room were dark and empty, as they had been for the past three years. No one had been able to find her. Even Rei with his skills and training had been incapable of picking up her trail. Not that he’d been officially authorised to track her—any efforts made were in secret, during lulls in his work. When Kio reported her missing, Rei had done what he could with little success.
A warm glow spilled from the neighbouring bedchamber. Rei hastened his climb to reach the rooftop of the lower level, which served as a perfect ledge below the window. He crouched low in the shadows beneath the sill.
‘I can still beat you from here.’ Kio’s voice resonated through the still night. Rei smiled at the familiar sound.
‘Not if I do this.’ A woman’s voice—Lady Moyna. Princess Moyna, he supposed now. Rei crept up to the window where the glass panes were left open to invite in the night breeze. He heard Kio groan in frustration that quickly turned to laughter. Rei peeped inside. The royal couple sat at a table, finishing a game of General, Kio’s beloved strategy game that simulated battle with wooden pieces on a board. Rei had never once emerged victorious—Moyna toppled him easily.
‘Come, it’s late. We should sleep.’ Kio stood to help Moyna to her feet. Golden hair spilled down her back in a long braid. She struggled to stand. Was she ill? Injured? Worry washed over Rei until he saw the swell of her belly and all became clear. He bristled. That earlier knife in his chest twisted cruelly. Of course she was with child. They’d been wed two years now. Kings must have heirs.
Rei turned to retreat just as Kio raised his head to glance out the window. Their eyes connected. Kio’s face flushed with eager disbelief as he now hurriedly helped Moyna into their bed. But Rei couldn’t do it. He couldn’t drag the Crown of Holania away from his wife and child, no matter how much he wanted to. And so, by the time Kio made it to the windowsill, Rei had already melted into the night.
The above story is a prequel for my fantasy trilogy, The Garden of the Gods, Book One. This teaser is one of many short pieces aimed at introducing readers to the world of Whyt’hallen and its characters.
Comments and critiques are strongly encouraged and appreciated.
(c) Jessica A. McMinn 2017