– 4 –
The path out of Cirahk was a blur of yawning market stalls and still-drunk revellers with glazed eyes and sore heads; Rei was as invisible as the morning breeze as he strolled out of the city. Women in stained aprons brushed past, eager to buy the day’s bread and milk at its freshest. Rei’s stomach turned with a hollow growl but its protests were not out of hunger.
Queen Halein was dead. Not sick and dying like her family but actually dead on the floor of her home. Rei-Hai Shaw had put her there, without purpose or reason. An accident. An unfortunate and untimely accident. The Queen had been where she should not have been, seen what she should not have seen. And Rei had only had one solution.
Blind those who see.
It was night again by the time he reached the safe house in Trendon. The barkeep was pulling ale for impatient patrons but recognised Rei and nodded him upstairs. Laina sat at the table in the centre of the room, picking slivers from a pile of roast meats. She stopped chewing as he entered in a huff.
‘Well you’re late,’ she said and popped another piece in her mouth.
Laina shrugged and shook her head, braids dancing. ‘Haven’t seen her. What’s wrong with you?’
Rei realised now he was pacing. ‘I fucked up.’
‘I mean it, Laina. The mission’s botched. It’s a fail for both of us.’
Laina kicked the table as she shot to her feet. ‘Bullshit!’ She speared an aggressive finger towards Rei. ‘I’m not missing out on my second Brand because of your inc——’
The air by the window began to shimmer and distort, rippling like the disturbed surface of a pond. Jahaanya Yai stepped through the portal, her blood-red eyes narrow and probing as a sneer curled under her nose.
Rei and Laina stood to immediate attention.
‘One of you,’ Jahaanya hissed. ‘One of you was seen.’
Rei clasped his hands behind his back so the master wouldn’t see them tremble. His chin was low, his eyes downcast.
‘The other excelled. Above and beyond the mission.’ Jahaanya’s gaze washed over both of them. ‘So tell us: which is which?’
Rei swallowed down the stone in his throat and opened his mouth to speak.
‘The latter was me,’ Laina said, stepping forward brazenly. ‘In and out within the hour.’
Jahaanya’s face softened to a smile, the warmth somehow disconcerting. She sauntered towards Laina. ‘You were indeed fast,’ she said.
An icicle burst through the crown of Laina’s head. A wet gurgle choked the room.
‘Too bad Tallas saw you.’
Blood splashed across the floor as Jahanaya pulled the crystalline dagger back out of Laina’s chin. The Qhoraakese dropped to her knees, then to her side, eyes wide and unseeing.
Rei’s jaw flapped but no words came forth. Blood began to pool under Laina’s corpse, leaking from the hole through her skull in a slow-moving tide of red. Tower executions, with their slick, poisoned needles, were painless. Clean. Invisible. This was anything but.
‘I-it was me,’ Rei managed. His gaze was fixed on Laina, fixed on the sporadic twitching of her fingers, the slight shudder of her shoulders. ‘I was the one who was seen.’
He turned to Jahaanya, eyes hot.
The Yaian master wiped Laina’s blood from her crystal dagger on the thigh of her pants. The blade seemed to soften, liquefy, and retreat into her palm. Jahaanya returned the strange weapon to a satchel on her belt and wiped her hands clean of indiscernible grime.
‘Why do you think the Queen was in the halls that night,’ she said coolly. It wasn’t a question—it never was. Jahaanya already had the answers. ‘Tallas saw someone leave his chamber the night of Laina’s mission. Babbled feverish moans to his mother about the death wraith who came to claim him. The Queen gave her son’s fears little weight, but still. The seed of doubt is quick to germinate.’
‘Blind those who see,’ Rei breathed, his voice but a whisper.
Jahaanya glided towards him. She stood almost a full head taller, her lips easily aligning with the shell of his ear. ‘We commend you for tidying up Laina’s mess,’ she said. ‘Seeing as you’re so good at it, you can take care of this as well.’
The Yaian kept walking. ‘Finish up here and return to the outpost by the turn of the next Myrahn Moon.’ She summoned a portal with the crush of a stone and paused before its whirling surface to look back at Rei one last time.
‘Do not run, Rei-Hai Shaw. We will always find you.’
And just like that she was gone.
REI SAT ON THE FLOOR. Laina’s blood had begun to gel and no longer billowed freely from the wound; her body no longer twitched. It was just her eyes that bothered him now. Her dark, unwavering stare that watched him from across the room.
He needed to dispose of the body. Fire would be best. But he could hardly light up a blaze in here. Reluctantly he stood, and moved over to the two sleep cots lined against the wall behind him. He stripped the linen free. The coarse woollen coverlets were dark and thick and would absorb Laina’s blood perfectly. Rei spread the first cover across the floor beside Laina’s body. He rolled her onto the fabric with the heel of his boot, not wanting to get too close to the corpse. The head lolled sideways, slack-jawed and expressionless.
‘Sorry,’ Rei said, folding the coverlet so Laina’s face met her shins. Bones cracked like dry kindling as he bundled the fabric small and tight like a sack, his entire body weight behind him with each crunch. It was the only way to carry her out that didn’t look overtly like a body. But even so, Rei grimaced at every snap.
After mopping up the last of the blood, Rei shoved the soiled blanket into the middle of the pile and threw the remaining bed linen on top. He grabbed the wine decanter from the table that had been set out for their evening meal and poured the alcohol over the sheets, watching as it soaked through the layers. The sharp scent almost masked the blood.
Rei bent down to gather the bundle that concealed Laina’s body. It was a heavy, cumbersome load; Rei could barely see over the top of it as he tottered down the stairs into the tavern, stomach in knots. The barkeep paused to stare at him, a thick eyebrow stretching skyward.
‘My friend can’t handle her wine,’ Rei said. ‘Threw up all over the sheets. Where does your housemaid collect soiled linen?’
The barkeep sneered in distaste and clicked his tongue. ‘Chuck it round back. Don’t want it stinkin’ out the place.’
Rei’s legs were shaking by the time he made it to the street. His shoulders burned from the weight, and his heart thundered as though he’d spent the last three days running. But still he kept walking. Trendon was asleep, no need for extra precautions; even the tavern had been mostly empty as most of the town was tucked up in their beds, ready to rise early and tend the farms.
Boots squelched through mud as Rei approached the banks of the great Faethou River, stretching from the Yaian Ranges in the north to the sacred isle of Court, which stood between Holania and Bararn at the mouth of the southern ocean. If he were ever lost in the Middle Kingdoms all he need do to get home was follow the Faethou upstream back to the outpost in the mountains.
But that wasn’t really the way home.
Rei had never given much thought to how he came to be with the brethren. His life had been a series of injustices and mishaps that just didn’t make sense. The Tower was just another cruelty thrust upon him.
He unravelled the bundle of linens amongst the reeds. He straightened Laina’s bones and crossed her wrists over her chest in the customary burial pose. The journey had brushed her eyelids closed and she no longer stared at him in her perplexed way.
‘Loyal obedience brought you death,’ Rei said, standing over the corpse. ‘I wonder what fate awaits me, then? A torturously long life?’ He scoffed. ‘Doubt it.’
Rei reached into a satchel on his belt, pulling out a carefully wrapped leather pouch. He unwound the lengthy straps like pulling cotton from a spool and rummaged through the thick sheepskin padding to locate a single glass phial. It was a dual-chambered bottle with one side filled with clear liquid and the other a crystalline purple-black powder.
Rei threw the jar at Laina’s corpse, the fragile glass smashing immediately upon impact. Smoke fizzled from the debris and soon the fabric was alight.
‘You didn’t deserve this,’ Rei whispered.
No one deserves this.
Rei glanced across the river, at the far horizon where the lights of his homeland twinkled in the distance.
ENTERING THE UPTON DISTRICT of the Holanian capital was easier than it should have been; even with the gated walls separating the commonfolk from the noble families of Adria, the royal city was not a military fort and its defences weren’t designed as such.
Rei tip-toed across roof-tops, silent as a cat, and invisible to the nobles in the streets below. Most were young, courting couples, returning arm-in-arm from a dinner at one of Upton’s fancier food halls. Their voices were thick with liquor; their hands and minds too preoccupied with each other’s bodies to care what was happening above their heads. Rei slipped by, and down onto the cobblestone streets that wove towards the high houses.
The Shaw family training hall was a squat building nestled amongst the imposing stone structures of the Holanian elites. Rei’s stomach twisted as he caught the flicker of a lantern through the upper-storey window.
Geraad was awake.
There were no locks on the doors of the training hall; it was a common space, free to all members of the Royal Guard, whose dormitory lay nearby. Rei entered through an open door, crossed the wooden floor on swift feet, and made for the alcove in the far corner where he pulled a retractable ladder down from its slot in the ceiling. The hinges groaned, but Rei did not bristle; if the Swordmaster was awake at this hour he was too drunk to defend himself.
Geraad Shaw knelt in the centre of the dull room, staring at an assortment of items laid before him: a lantern, a curl of parchment, a ceramic flagon of whatever poison he’d selected for the night. He gave a perfunctory glance in Rei’s direction before returning to his drink.
‘Thought you’d be dead by now,’ he muttered.
Rei took to the floor opposite him, assuming the same straight-backed pose. They knelt in silence for some time, Geraad watching Rei down his long straight nose with a distasteful sneer on his lips. He was everything Rei wasn’t: tall and wide; bulky and brutal.
They raised us because our parents didn’t want to.
‘Why did you give me away?’ Rei’s voice was soft, breathless even.
‘Gave you away?’ Geraad scoffed. ‘I sold you, you demonic little bastard. Payment for services rendered.’ He took a swig and wiped his mouth. ‘I certainly got the better deal.’
Rei’s fists tightened. He’d known Geraad was not his father—that fact had been beaten into him almost nightly. But hearing the words demonic struck home, slicing deeper than he expected.
It had only been a year or two since Rei learned the truth of his birth, when the pupils of his pale brown eyes began to narrow and take on a luminous sheen. Siephymn, some of the brethren called him—demonspawn. To think his mother had lain with a cursed beast from the realm adjacent …
Rei’s eyes drifted to the parchment on the floor: a charcoal etching of a fine-featured woman with long hair and the subtly upturned eyes common to the Kheshtarli.
Geraad snatched the etching away. ‘Don’t you look at her,’ he growled.
Rei swallowed his fear, then cursed himself for it. He was no longer a child cowering under every raised fist. This man held no power anymore.
With the slightest tremor in his fingers, Rei reached for the flagon on the floor between them. He took a long, slow drink, grimacing as the thick sweetness of the mead coated his throat. Wiping his mouth, he set the now empty pot back down on the floor. Rei stood, brushed off his knees, and descended the stairs.
HE SHOULD HAVE LEFT THEN. Should have headed back to the safe house, and onto the ruined outpost in the Yaian Ranges.
But he didn’t.
Rei made for the castle, for the sprawling gardens with its fountains and marble statues of monarchs long dead. The courtyards were quiet; only a southerly breeze disturbed the foliage. Guards were stationed at doorways and intermittently under the stone archways along the open-aired corridor surrounding the gardens. At the creak of an opening door, several men turned towards the sound.
Prince Kiokharen strode from the palace, thick cloak draped around his broad shoulders against the chill. He acknowledged the guards with a subtle nod as he passed, each soldier bowing deeply in his wake.
Rei slunk deeper into the night as Kio headed his way. His breath caught in his chest. The prince had grown more handsome since Rei last saw him, his jawline now sharp and defined. Charcoal hair as unruly as ever, and gentle eyes that could become strong and commanding when required.
Kio slipped past Rei’s perch in the shadows, his gait casual but quick. He was headed somewhere with purpose—perhaps the stables, judging from his current bearings.
A little late for a ride, Rei thought, taking a silent step after him. He tailed the Prince for a moment, until the sentries fell away and they approached the very fringes of the castle guards, close to the stables. When he was certain they were alone, Rei drew a confident breath and spoke.
‘You shouldn’t walk alone, My Prince.’
Kiokharen paused, hand drifting towards the hilt of his sword. He spun in the general direction of Rei’s voice, those sapphire eyes searching for a hidden assailant. Rei’s pulse quickened from the shadows.
‘I think you’ll find I can protect myself just fine,’ he said, drawing the blade. Moonlight glinted on sharp steel.
‘I’m not here to hurt you.’
‘Show yourself, and let me decide that.’
Rei released a long-held breath and stepped forward.
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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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