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‘There was another one last night.’
Rei-Hai Shaw stirred extra honey into his lumpy porridge as Lylen and Elles leant in to hear the morning’s gossip. Norvar set down his breakfast tray and slipped into a chair before continuing his story.
‘Thirty-seventh floor,’ the dark Qhoraakese man continued, cracking open his bread roll. ‘Right into a snow drift. Heard they had to dig him out of a fifteen foot hole.’
‘Third jumper this month,’ Elles mused. She tucked her straw-yellow hair behind her ears before poking at her breakfast with a spoon. ‘Must have got a weak batch.’
That was how new inductees arrived at the Tower—in batches. Groups of terrified children torn from their homes by threats and false promises. Rei-Hai Shaw still remembered the night he was taken, the night the brethren tried to steal his past. But Rei never erased that part of himself, not fully. He still understood why they jumped.
‘Shameful way to die though,’ Lylen said. He had the hard-set jaw of an east coast Bararnite, though no one ever said where they were from. ‘All mangled and bloody and buried in the snow.’
‘As opposed to what?’ Rei scoffed. ‘Skewered in an alleyway only to be eaten by stray cats?’ He pushed his bowl of porridge away.
Lylen shrugged. ‘We’re all destined to die in service. It’s the greatest honour we can hope for.’
‘There’s no honour in failure. Which is what it means if you’re dead,’ Rei said.
Another group of inductees passed Rei’s table, a wisp of black smoke. They settled on a bench at the far end of the mostly empty dining hall.
‘Settle down, Mr First Band,’ Norvar hissed as the passing group finally diverted their stare from Rei-Hai Shaw. ‘Just because you have the highest success rate in our batch doesn’t mean you can shit on us hopefuls.’
Rei covered the black cuff tattooed around his wrist with his hand. He was the first recruit ever to gain the induction brand before his fourteenth year, and the youngest to receive a band. The accolade granted him favour among the Yaian masters—a fact his peers never let him forget.
‘What was that for again?’ Elles nudged his shoulder and dipped her chin towards his forearm. ‘Collecting?’
Lylen leant back in his chair, folding his arms with a scoff. ‘Of course. The riskiest of disciplines. Little wonder death and failure are one and the same for you. Can’t bring back your bounty if you’re dead.’
Rei stood abruptly, the clamour pulling all eyes in the room towards him. He was used to stares, always had been—the crimson sheen of his hair was unusual enough to steal attention. And now the pupils of his eyes had begun to narrow…
‘I have a meeting with the masters,’ he said, picking up his tray.
Words were muttered under breaths as Rei backed away from the table. He delivered his still-full plates to the scullery before heading to the central staircase to begin the long, winding ascent to the dorm rooms.
With its one hundred and three levels, the Tower was the tallest structure in the northern kingdom and the only one still standing. Hidden away in the permafrost surrounded on all sides by endless snowy tundra, Rei had called the Tower home for four years. A life of isolation, of silence—the brethren of the Tower were shadows, and shadows made no sound.
Rei continued his ascent, past the training floors, the infirmary, the alchemy labs, each room a copy of the last: iron and stone and red-glowing embers. Prestige rose with each level but the decor was no more embellished. Even the private quarters of the dormitory levels remained equally dull and impersonal.
Floors thirty-five through forty were for the Tower’s newest recruits; forty-one and two were assigned to unbanded inductees; the next level for first bands, the following seconds, then thirds and fourths. The Yaian masters resided on floor fifty and Rei had never been beyond that.
He paused before his quarters—a plain wooden door with 433 scratched onto the nameplate in charcoal. The third room on the forty-third floor. This was his world. No more training halls in Adria, no more palace banquets with the royal siblings. No friends. No freedom. Just an empty stone box with a straw pallet for a bed and a narrow window out into an expanse of white.
He opened the door to find Xenae waiting in the centre of the room, facing towards the far window. At the sound of Rei’s entrance, the Yaian master wheeled himself around.
‘I thought the briefing was in the Master Chamber,’ Rei said, stripping out of his linen tunic.’
‘It is,’ Xenae said in his clipped northern accent. ‘We came to escort you.’
Rei faltered momentarily at the jarring use of we; the Yaians always referred to themselves as a group and even after four years at the Tower, Rei still found himself searching for another person potentially out of sight.
‘They talk, you know.’ Rei said, pulling his field uniform down from the wall where it hung in a prominent place of pride. ‘The other recruits. They see how you favour me. Why am I being chosen for a second trial when most of my batch haven’t even been offered their first?’
‘We do not have favourites, Rei-Hai Shaw.’ Xenae’s words sharpened. ‘But we do recognise talent.’ He wheeled closer and reached for Rei’s arm, brushing his fingers over the band that encircled his left wrist, the manacle that bound him to the brethren.
‘When did we first mark you? Two, three years ago? You were so young when you came to the inking room. It’s rare for such a new recruit to be so … broken in.’
Rei snatched his arm away. ‘You can thank my father for that.’
‘We do not speak of our pasts, Rei-Hai Shaw,’ the master cautioned. ‘We were nothing before we came here. Never forget that.’
Xenae flicked his long icy hair back over his shoulder before leaving his hands to rest on the stumps of his legs. Rei felt the master’s eyes on him, his probing crimson gaze washing over the sprawling serpentine shackle that stretched from his elbow to clavicle—the inky brand of the Tower etched into his flesh. He shrugged into his shirt.
‘Who was it?’ Rei asked softly, stepping into his leather breeches. ‘The boy who jumped.’
‘Someone weaker than you.’
Rei scoffed and sat on the rickety cot to lace his boots.
‘You could be a Fourth Band.’
Fingers halting, Rei raised his head to look at the Yaian, his eyes unconsciously falling on the tattoos marking Xenae’s own flesh. So few of the brethren mastered each of the four disciplines—Xenae himself was but one of a handful. To join the ranks of the Yaians…
Xenae reached into his tunic and produced a crystal as blue as the summer sky in Adria and no bigger than a pea. He crushed it in his fist like a biscuit and the air between them began to ripple.
‘We will see you up there.’ Xenae rolled towards the shimmering void and disappeared.
THE TOP FLOOR OF THE TOWER was so lavishly jewelled it looked more like a place of worship than a briefing room. Rei-Hai Shaw had only stepped foot in the polished marble chamber once before, when he received his orders for the Collector trial. The sapphire encrusted doors opened at Xenae’s command where they were greeted by the Goddess herself. A grand statue, Miatha stood at the head of the chamber, almost the height of the ceiling. Two black-shrouded figures waited at her feet, dark blemishes against glistening white stone.
Rei bowed his head in reverence and knelt beside another figure bent before the Yaian master and the Goddess. As Xenae took his place at the head of the room, Rei stole a glance at the other recruit from the corner of his eye: Qhoraakese, with tightly curled ashen hair twisted into long ropes that dangled over her shoulders. She met his gaze with a slight eye-smile. Rei turned away.
‘We have received an assignment from Cirahk,’ Jahaanya Yai announced. She spoke in the same manner as Xenae, her pronouns plural and rhotics trilled. Despite her youthful appearance, her hair was icy white, and the crimson of her eyes all the more threatening from the paleness of her skin. She was tall and strong and threatening, the four bands around her forearm proudly on display. Rei-Hai Shaw kept his gaze low.
‘This mission will be a trial,’ Xenae said. ‘For Silencer.’
Rei’s heart fell but he willed his face impassive. He could no longer avoid taking lives; as a Collector he need only kill if he failed—something he never planned to do. But as a Silencer, murder would be his job.
‘Rei-Hai Shaw. Laina Daine,’ Xenae said. ‘We have chosen you to accompany us to silence three members of the one family. This will be done over the course of several days so their deaths appear the result of plague. Jahaanya will lead the mission.’
‘You will each be assigned a target,’ Jahaanya said. She pulled two folded squares of parchment from the inner pocket of her tunic. Rei and Laina took one each. Nerves made his fingers unsteady as Rei popped the wax seal.
The popular Bararnite girl’s name evoked memories of a childhood spent in the Adrian court. Rei had danced with the Princess Celys at the betrothal dinner for Amikharlia of Holania, and Tallas of Bararn—Celys’s older brother. Alarms started to sound in Rei’s ears.
‘Tomorrow, we will portal to fringe town of Trendon, where a Tower safe house is located,’ Jahaanya continued. ‘From there we will travel to the capital of Cirahk, where we will separate for the operation. You will have a window of five days to execute your target.’
‘And where will these executions take place?’ Rei managed to summon his voice from his closing throat.
Jahaanya’s blood-red eyes narrowed as she regarded him down the length of her nose. Her lips curled ever so slightly.
‘The Royal Palace of Cirahk.’
TO BE CONTINUED…
THE COLLECTOR’S LOST THINGS takes place before the events of the upcoming dark fantasy trilogy, GARDENS OF WAR & WASTELAND.
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