– 3 –
When Rei last visited Cirahk, the thick stone ramparts of Bararn’s military capital had been intimidating. He’d been ten, maybe eleven, when King Vyton demanded both the Holanian heir Kiokharen and his closest male relative—a younger cousin, Tarken—stay in Cirahk as political hostages while Tallas was in Adria bonding with his bride-to-be; Rei had been sent along as a companion for the prince.
They had entered the fortified city by carriage with the window barred and curtained. Rei hadn’t seen the tall buildings that shadowed the cobblestoned streets, the same buildings that shadowed his movements now. Cirahk was a lively city; taverns were abuzz with soldiers and civilians alike, all drinking and feasting and trying to win favour with the pleasure girls. If it had been like this the last time he was here, he wouldn’t have known; the Holanian guests had been confined to the palace at the behest of Vyton’s second son.
Rei would have loved to stick a needle in him. The young prince had spent weeks tormenting everyone who crossed his path. Serving girls were given obscure orders then punished when they faltered; Tarken was unfairly blamed for Reminas’s own misdeeds; and Kio was ruthlessly teased for his awkward, lanky form. And Rei, well, he was left unscathed—a slight all on its own. It was like he had not been there at all.
Just like now.
Crowds were easy to navigate for Rei-Hai Shaw. He preferred them to creeping in shadows. There was anonymity in the sea of revellers; Rei slipped through the people unseen, locking no eyes and brushing no shoulders. He headed towards the heart of the city, where the tall gated walls surrounded the palace like a ribcage. It had scared him as a child, but he now saw it for what it truly was: just another obstacle for him to climb. Great blocks of mottled charcoal granite rose up into the night sky. The stone had been carved into shapely, uniform bricks but the edges were rough and footholds easy to find—if you knew where to look.
Rei found a shadowy nook and scaled the wall, slow and sure, a hunting cat up a tree. The watch tower above him, just to the left, would provide the perfect cover when he slipped through the embrasure onto the height of the wall. A faint glow emanated from within the tower. Rei pressed himself flat against the stone, straining his ears for any breaths or murmurs that would alert him to the presence of guards. There was nothing, save for the crackle of wood in a fire.
Easing himself up over the crest of the wall, Rei crept into the narrow tower. The burning brazier glowed in the corner. A low stool sat beside it with an upturned cup and clean-picked chicken bones splayed across the floor. Someone was supposed to be on duty.
Rei peered out the watchtower window, glancing back along the length of the wall. A torch danced in the distance. It bobbed steadily closer. Rei’s pulse quickened. Two silhouettes lurked in the shadow of the flame and were headed for the watchtower, their voices as low and muffled as their footsteps. Scaling back down the wall in haste was foolish—he would have to hide.
The watchtower itself was cylindrical, and its roof a steep cone with no crests or ridges for cover. Rei glanced upward into the pitch-black void of the interior roof cavity. He sprang from wall to wall, rebounding off each surface as he spiralled higher into the darkness. There were no rafters or beams to perch upon so Rei would have to rely on his strength. The tower was wider than he would have liked and required all four limbs splayed out like a star to keep himself suspended. He could hold this for an hour or two—he wouldn’t have received his Brand if he couldn’t—but he was already pressed for time. With any luck, the patrol would pass straight by.
‘Sixth Hour to First—the worst shift,’ one of the guards grumbled. ‘Every fuckin’ night of the Myrahn Moon.’ He set the torch into the wall sconce as the other undid his sword belt.
‘Good thing you’ve got some company.’
The scabbards clattered to the ground. Hands became buried in hair and fingers fiddled with buttons and belts as the pair embraced and kissed. Rei swallowed. He pressed his palms and heels further into the stone to prevent himself slipping. Closing his eyes, Rei willed his focus back to the mission.
But he could not stop it wandering elsewhere.
The night Jahaanya Yai had come for Rei-Hai Shaw, he’d been sleeping. She stepped through a puddle into his loft above the training hall and promised to take him away from his father, but the price was to never return. Rei had begged for a chance to say goodbye and she granted him until the turn of Seventh Hour, between midnight and the early morn. He’d agreed; there was only one farewell he needed to make.
In the many years spent sneaking into the royal siblings’ bedchambers, Rei had gotten quite adept at scaling walls. The path to the prince’s window was deceptively easy, with a convenient lower-level rooftop perched not far below. Rei had crept along the ledge with confident speed but a last minute hesitation had prevented him from bounding through the window unannounced as he so often did.
The prince was not alone.
Rustling bedclothes, breathy moans and the odd boyish giggle kept Rei at a distance—but did not force his retreat. He edged closer to the window sill and craned his neck to peer in. Kio was naked on the bed with the stable boy entangled beneath him. Rei swallowed as his pulse thrummed. He’d long suspected his feelings for the Holanian heir had gone beyond friendship. But Kio was four years his elder, almost a man; Rei was a child. A friend. A little brother.
He snuck away without a word.
‘I’m being moved to palace duty next moon,’ the taller of the two guards said, bringing Rei back to the present. He buckled his sword belt as the other pulled his breeches up from around his knees.
‘A lofty promotion.’
‘They’ve strengthened security since the King got sick. Fast-tracking soldiers through the ranks. Shouldn’t be long before you join me. Especially if Vyton doesn’t recover.’ The taller guard reached out to assist buttoning his lover’s surcoat.
So it’s begun.
Jahaanya had already hit her mark; Laina should not have been far behind her, having left for the palace almost a full day before Rei. She insisted on striking first while he had taken extra time to plan and discern the easiest route into the Bararnite stronghold.
‘I heard Tallas has come down with fever,’ the other guard said.
Rei groaned silently; he was now officially running late.
‘What if Vyton’s illness is contagious? What if you——’
The taller man hushed his lover. ‘I doubt I’ll be anywhere near the royal family. They’ll probably have me guarding the pantry or something. I’ll be fine. Come; I’ll see you back to your post.’
The pair exchanged one last kiss and headed back the way they had come, fingers gently entwined. Once Rei could no longer hear their quiet chatter, he landed on the floor, soft as a whisper. His heart was still pounding, but this time from panic—he should have challenged Laina on her decision to go first.
Rei descended the wall and dropped into the palace grounds behind a screen of foliage. Even in the darkness, he saw memories everywhere. The structure that rose before him was the tea house where they’d taken outdoor lessons with the Bararnite scholars. He remembered the way Kio’s face reddened after being called to read aloud, confused and stumbling over words. Reminas snickered and called him Simple Kio, a cruel name that stuck for many years.
Beyond the teahouse was the gravel courtyard where they’d later sparred; Rei disarmed Reminas in a single blow and shot back his own equally childish taunt. He was sent back to Adria after that, before Remi the Weakling ever had the chance to catch on.
The Cirahk castle was less inviting than its counterpart in Adria—and more difficult to climb. Its rounded towers and single-height roof meant Rei would not be able to rest or hide on lower levels; he’d be exposed until he found a window to slip through.
Crouching under a large statue of Nirhana, Rei studied the potential entry points. He knew Celys’s room looked out onto the interior gardens—she’d complained how she missed the little sparring match that saw her brother humiliated—so he could not directly access her chamber from here. Being the only daughter, she slept closest to her parents, and the King, on the other hand, had seen the fight with Reminas. That must mean …
There’s the royal chamber.
The highest window of the left-most tower had the best view of the gravelled garden, which meant Celys’s chamber lay beyond. One of these windows must lead onto the mezzanine between the royal suite and the lower levels. He just had to pick the right one.
Rei shot out across the courtyard, low to the ground and almost on all fours as he sped towards the castle. He scrambled quickly up the wall, scaling the bricks in a single breath. Once through the window, he exhaled heavily. He’d done it. He was inside.
From the mezzanine, Rei peered over the redwood balustrade onto the level below. The marble-floored ballroom was closed off from the internal courtyard by ten-foot glass folding doors. He remembered the way they would open up to allow the extravagant parties to spill into the gardens, the way gaudy floral arrangements adorned each of the gold-rimmed columns, and how music permeated every corner of the castle. No one threw a ball like the Bararnites—and no one hungered for power quite like their youngest son, either.
Reminas had to be the client. How else would he be the only royal allowed to survive—other than his beloved mother? But why want Celys dead? Even as his older sister, she would not outrank a living male heir. Was he so filled with spite?
The princess’s chamber lay opposite Rei, where the mezzanine curled to wrap the full circumference of the room. There was no guard posted at her door—or any of the royal quarters for that matter. Did they already fear some sort of plague? Rei glanced over the balustrade once more and saw the guards poised below: two at the foot of the spiral staircase heading up to the mezzanine; and one at each of the glass doors, strategically hidden in the shadows of the support columns. Each was a stone sentinel, barely moving and cast in darkness. Rei drew another deep breath and thanked the Goddess for his decision to enter through the upper levels.
He moved towards Celys’s room. His feet were cushioned by a plush carpet, patterned in geometric splashes of crimson, burgundy and gold—the Bararnite colours. The gilded doorknob of the princess’s room did not so much as squeak as Rei turned the handle and slipped inside.
Her room was brighter than Rei expected, lit in the corner by a melting candelabra.
She still hates the dark.
He watched the wax drip down the ornate stand onto the dresser. The princess was tucked snuggly in her four-poster bed, heavy velvet quilts pulled up to her shoulders. Her hair shone pale against the dark linens, the colour of not-quite-ripe strawberries. As a child, Rei had been fascinated by the auburn hair of the Bara siblings. Their fiery locks were the closest he’d seen to his own colouring, even though he knew his was unnatural. Why else would his father keep his hair clipped to the scalp?
Celys stirred as Rei approached. He froze. She stretched in her sleep as she turned onto her side and bunched a wad of blankets into her arms. The ties of her nightgown were loosely fastened, exposing much of her back to the night air.
Rei eased one of his needles from the canister on his thigh. He stretched across the bed, ever so gently supporting himself with his other hand pressed to the pillow. The neck was the ideal location but not easily accessible with her lying in bed. Rei should be able to reach her nape if he just moved her hair …
The princess swatted at the air above her head. Rei withdrew, heart blocking his throat. Celys scratched a phantom itch and nestled back down to sleep. Rei closed his eyes. Caution would get him nowhere. Readjusting his grip on the needle, he lunged forward with swift precision. The poisoned tip slid in and out of the princess’s neck in a fraction of a second and Rei was retreating to the darkest corner of the room before Celys could have registered the faintest of stings. She rubbed at her neck again, rolled over to her stomach, and continued to sleep. She was fine now—oblivious. But before the turn of the moon, Princess Celys Bara would be dead.
Rei’s pulse did not settle. He stepped out from the shadow of the wardrobe and crept back towards the door. He felt sick. Not a nauseated discomfort but a truly painful ache. One that sliced at his gut, tore through his muscles and crushed his lungs. His weak, sweaty fingers struggled to turn the knob.
Once outside, with the door closed behind him, Rei took a moment to centre himself. He rested his forehead against the decorative carvings in the wood, fingers still resting on the handle. Was this how Laina felt when she pricked Tallas the night before? Or Jahaanya with the King? They had killed a family on the whims of an ambitious boy. What if Reminas turned his gaze on the Holanians next?
‘What are you doing?’
The voice was a dagger through Rei’s chest. It was feminine but commanding and not at all afraid to have encountered a stranger in her home.
Rei’s hand slipped from the door knob. He backed away from Celys’s room, almost comically slow. The queen was bundled in a fur-lined night robe and Rei could make out the shadowy hollows under her eyes even in the dim light.
‘If you do not explain yourself, I will alert the guards. So I ask again: what are you doing?’ Her brow began to furrow as she studied Rei-Hai Shaw. ‘I know your face,’ she said slowly. ‘You’re——’
Rei lunged forward, thrusting a hidden needle into the tender flesh of the queen’s right trapezius. She gasped and pressed her hand to the bloodless wound, eyes wide. Her legs faltered as if tangled in her gown. Halein collapsed, silent and breathless.
Blind those who see.
The queen was not to be harmed—that was the brief. He would be killed for this.
Slipping the potent needle back into his sleeve, Rei stepped around Halein’s body. He dashed back towards the window.
THE COLLECTOR’S LOST THINGS takes place five years before the events of the upcoming dark fantasy trilogy, GARDENS OF WAR & WASTELAND.
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