– 2 –
Portals never got easier. Rei-Hai Shaw stumbled over his feet as he shot out at the base of the Yaian Ranges on the other side of the magic doorway. His insides continued a forward trajectory and his body took its time to catch up; hunched over, he rested his hands on his knees, huffing deep breaths. The icy air of the outside world was equally as shocking.
Laina Daine waltzed passed him, as straight and sure-footed as Jahaanya herself who followed thereafter. The Yaian glanced down at him, crimson eyes following the sharp line of her nose.
‘Some creatures weather magic better than others,’ she drawled.
They’d portalled to an old Skrevaari outpost on the border between the eastern-most kingdom of Bararn and the ruins of the north. Not much remained in the little settlement—a crumbling watch tower, a grey and decrepit inn partially hidden by a snow cloak, a broken wagon filled with equally broken barrels.
‘This isn’t Trendon,’ Laina said, looking around the icy waste. ‘You said we were portalling to Trendon.’
‘A portal only travels so far,’ Jahaanya said and offered no further explanation. She pulled another crystal from within her tunic and crushed it in her strong fist. The air before her began to swirl like the disturbed surface of a pond. ‘This is a trial. We are not here to spoon feed you.’
She stepped into the watery curtain and disappeared. Laina made to follow but the portal collapsed in her face.
‘We’re supposed to find our own way to Trendon,’ Rei muttered. Kicking the ankle-deep snow from his boots, he straightened to move around the abandoned village. He’d been here before. His collector’s trial to Ciraselo—Jahaanya Yai had dumped him in the middle of a blizzard.
‘Where are you going?’ Laina grumbled as Rei tottered away.
Once out of sight, Rei’s fingers worked to open a pouch on his belt. He removed one of the Tower’s trademark needles—fresh: no blood, no poison—and pushed the tip into the ball of his thumb. A thick, inky substance welled from the puncture like the last drop being squeezed from an empty water skin. Rei gave a cautionary glance over each shoulder. He pressed his bleeding thumb to his tongue.
The air stirred. Rei wiped his hand on his pant leg and forced the needle back into his belt. A shrill cry cracked through the silence of the snowy village. A great black bird circled overhead. Rei smiled.
‘That was quick, girl,’ he said.
Piren-Haw cawed her response.
‘Think you can lead me to Trendon?’
Another caw. The bird looped once then flew off on a bearing Rei assumed was south-east. He pretended to re-lace his breeches then headed back to where Laina was waiting. She leant against a broken wagon, twirling a throwing dagger around her fingers. When Rei approached, she fumbled and the blade sunk into the snow.
‘Trendon’s that way,’ he said, pointing. ‘Surely not more than a few days’ walk. You remembered your rations, didn’t you?’
Laina’s face soured. ‘You’re not the only one here who’s been on a trial.’ She pushed up the sleeve of her left arm; the band was an even darker shadow against her umber skin.
‘I’m a Watcher,’ she said.
Rei snorted. ‘A glorified stalker.’
‘And you’re a glorified thief, what’s your point. We’re equals.’
Rei trudged off after Piren-Ha. The sooner they cleared the freezing tundra and made it to Trendon the better; his fingers were already beginning to numb, his nose red and throbbing. If there was one thing Rei-Hai Shaw hated it was the snow and that was all his life was lately.
‘What? You think you’re better than me?’ Laina accused, pounding through the snow. ‘Because you gather trinkets? How do you think our masters know where to find them? That information comes from me! We’re all equally as valuable.’
At this, Rei spun around. ‘Valuable? We’re only valuabled for what we do, not who we are.’
Laina’s jaw was strong, pointed. ‘Exactly.’
They travelled in silence after that. Rei led the way, guided by intermittent glances at the sky for traces of Piren-Ha. The snow underfoot began to thin, becoming a brown icy gel in place of the inch-deep powder. Northern Bararn was no more inviting than the snow plains of the Skrevaar: the sparse red grasses provided little nourishment for wildlife and the treeless plains no cover for travellers. Huddled among a cluster of jagged, lichen-covered boulders, Rei felt uncomfortable and exposed. Laina had gone in search of fresh game for a hot meal, leaving him to set up camp.
Crackles and pops from the budding fire were the only sounds, even as Laina made her approach, white plume of fur slung over her shoulder. She dropped the body of the snow fox at Rei’s feet. Two Tower needles remained lodged in its neck.
‘I’ve never thought to hunt with those before,’ Rei said. He stoked the fire with one hand and crunched on a dry biscuit with the other.
‘Takes impeccable aim,’ Laina said and took a seat opposite him. She pulled a knife from her boot and began skinning the fox as casually as though she were peeling an orange. Her fingers were deft, movements certain.
‘You have weird eyes,’ Laina said, rotating the fox carcass on her makeshift spit.
‘I had a weird family.’
Rei’d hoped his dismissive comment would be enough to stem Laina’s curiosity but she continued to stare.
‘My mother was a lover of strange and unique things,’ he said, brushing biscuit crumbs from his fingers. ‘Never wanted to be the same as anyone else. So when she found out she was pregnant, she prayed to the Goddess for a special child. Something one-of-a-kind, like everything else in her collection. This is what the Goddess gave her.’
Laina still stared at him, eyebrows high.
‘Well that’s a lie,’ she said.
With the fox still roasting, Laina took to braiding her locs into a thick rope. Her gaze was fixed on something in the dark, distant and unseen.
‘I grew up around here,’ she said softly.
Rei looked up but didn’t speak.
‘Not here exactly, but in Bararn. A little village between Trendon and Gerrick Port in the east. Heard of Midden?’
Rei shook his head.
‘Didn’t think so. Not really much of anything. Don’t know how my parents came to live there. They were spice traders who worked the markets in Cirahk. Moved to Midden after I was born and ran a stable for nomads to hide out for the winter. Not a great time for roaming the plains. Gets pretty cold out that way.’
‘Hardly warm here.’ Rei shivered despite the fire pit crackling away between them. It hissed and sputtered as fat dripped from the carcass into the flames. Laina reached out to turn the stick that had been rammed throat to anus through the poor beast.
‘It feels weird being home,’ she said softly. ‘Well, not home but you know. Does it feel the same for you?’
‘I’m not from Bararn.’
‘You must have some connection,’ Laina insisted. ‘The Silencer trials are always related to our pasts. A test to see if we’ve truly buried that part of us. I have. I’d end both my parents if I had to.’
A stray ember fluttered towards Rei and settled in the dirt before him. ‘You’re fiercely loyal to the brethren,’ he said, stomping the glowing ash beneath his heel.
‘And why wouldn’t I be? The masters took us because we were sold to them. They raised us because our parents didn’t want to. I’ll do anything the Yaians ask of me.’
Rei chose not to voice his thoughts. He was obedient, sure—he valued his life after all—but was he grateful? The masters had plucked him from a childhood of beatings but it was hardly a merciful hand they’d extended. All they’d done was take Rei from one house of abuse for another.
‘Do you want some?’ Laina extended the charred fox towards him.
Rei’s nose shrivelled; it smelt of old seafood. He shook his head and reached for his water canteen. After a mouthful he said, ‘I’m not carrying you to Trendon if that makes you sick.’
Laina tore at the backstrap with her teeth. She chewed and chewed. ‘It’s not the worst eating meat,’ she said at last. ‘Is a shame about the smell though. Get some sleep—I’ll take first watch.’
It was a pointless gesture; the brethren had been trained not to sleep. Not restfully anyway. Rei scooted closer against the rock at his back and wrapped his arms around his legs for warmth. Chin against his knees, he stared into the dancing flames, thinking why did they bring me here?
TRENDON WAS A SHIT HOLE. It wasn’t particularly different to any other village in Bararn: the thatch-roof houses were strewn about the main square in a hodgepodge fashion, with the collective herd of livestock fenced into a pen beside the chief’s comparatively grand dwelling.
It was the weather that made it shittier than usual. A steady shower of rain had followed Rei and Laina across the Meytaran Plain and by the time they stumbled into the inn, their bones were as heavy as their sodden wool cloaks.
‘Need a room,’ Rei said, sluicing the dripping water from his eye sockets. ‘Name’s Fellyn.’
The robust barkeep stared at Rei as he towelled out the inside of a pewter mug. Fellyn was the password to the Tower safe house—the inn room where brethren could rest and recover safely and in secret.
The barkeep’s pale eyes narrowed. They were late, Rei knew that; Jahaanya must have arrived days ago and safe houses were strictly a first-come-first-served kind of operation. He racked his brain for the counter-code, the phrase that would alert the keeper of the existing arrangement.
Laina stepped forward, elbows coming to rest on the bar as she nudged Rei aside.
‘Mother’s taken ill,’ she said confidently.
The barkeep nodded and shrugged towards the staircase. ‘Third door on the left,’ he said.
‘I knew that,’ Rei hissed as they made for the upper level, footsteps whisper-quiet on the creaky steps.
‘Then why hesitate?’ Laina shot back. She outpaced Rei to reach the door first.
Inside, Jahaanya Yai stood by the curtained window, watching the grey rain fall outside. A single lantern flickered on the writing table but its warm glow did little to alleviate the chill in the room. Rei was desperate to change from his soaking clothes but knew the Yaian master held little concern for his comfort.
‘You kept us waiting,’ Jahaanya said in her heavily accented drawl. ‘We expected more.’
‘Apologies, Master,’ both Rei and Laina said with a tip of their head; there was little point in sharing excuses.
‘The mission begins tomorrow. We trust you have not forgotten your targets?’
Rei thought of the parchment rolled up in his breast pocket.
She’d been a friend, once. Sort of. They’d danced for hours at the state dinner celebrating Amikharlia’s betrothal to the Bararnite heir, Tallas of Cirahk. Celys was bold and boisterous—the result of two brothers, Rei supposed—but she was wildly flirtatious and always sought him out at such affairs. Rei himself was not exactly a lowborn but hardly the type to marry princesses. Even so, she was always keen for mischief and for that reason he’d enjoyed her company.
Now he thought of her in the past tense.
‘You are to use these,’ Jahaanya was saying. She reached into a satchel strapped to her hips and produced two long lacquered boxes, the kind that might be used for storing an ink stone and brushes.
Rei took the proffered case and cracked open the lid. Inside were a set of Yaian Death Needles—the signature weapon of the Tower—each as long as his hand. His brow furrowed as he observed them. There were five in all, more than enough for a single target, and yet he already carried more than enough in hidden cases on his forearms and thighs. He glanced up at Jahaanya questioningly.
‘There can be no suspicion,’ the Yaian said evenly. ‘A slow release poison that will stop the lungs before the heart, bringing fever and consumption.’
‘As though struck by illness,’ Laina said, almost impressed.
‘Precisely. Which is why timing is imperative. We will take care of the King first. Then you and Rei-Hai will enter the palace for Tallas and Celys.’
‘What of Reminas?’ Rei asked. The youngest child of Vyton and Halein—the snivelling little shit who taunted Kio and tormented Amika. The boy no one liked. He was to survive?
‘Halein and Reminas are not to be touched,’ Jahaanya snapped. ‘Our client was adamant. Tallas and Celys are your targets, not a single soul more. Unless …’
… unless we fuck it up.
‘Blind those who see,’ the master said.
‘Blind those who see,’ said Rei and Laina, repeating the words of the creed by which all Tower brethren abide. With guards and spies on every corner, sending them into the royal bedchambers of the most powerful military stronghold in the Middle Kingdoms was all but setting them up to fail.
Is that what they want?
But it was not Rei’s place to question—or speculate. He slipped the box of needles into his pack just as Laina was doing the same.
‘You are promising recruits,’ Jahaanya said. A pale blue light glowed in her palm as she crushed a magic stone to summon her portal. ‘Do not waste your life with failure.’
Laina and Rei bowed as the Yaian took her leave, vanished in an airy puddle. The Qhoraakese turned to Rei, water still dripping from the coils of her hair.
‘Well,’ she said, the faintest of smiles tugging at the corners of her lips.’ Who wants to go first?’
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THE KING & HIS SHADOW takes place one year before the events of the upcoming dark fantasy trilogy, GARDENS OF WAR & WASTELAND.
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