The Thief’s Wager: Pageant in the Streets

Chapter Thirteen

The crate under him creaked as he leaned against the darken building. A restless night of broken dreams and unsettling thoughts pulled him from his bed. His sore legs protested from his meandering journey through the uninhabited streets, trying to piece together the puzzle that lacked most of the pieces.

Streaks of fuchsia smeared across the dawning sky as Zack ripped off a piece of savory loaf and shoved it in his mouth. A full belly improved his mood; creating a sense of burning determination in his gut. But a crash from around the corner cuts the silence, followed by a forceful meow stretched across the air.

“Hey there fella,” he cooed as a dirty tabby approached him. The ruffled tuffs of fir and scars told him the feline was a fighter. “You hungry?”

Wide kitten eyes regard him as he ripped the loaf while his stained teeth pluck it from his fingers. By the third piece his new friend was almost in his lap. They sat and ate as golden rays peaked over the crooked rooftops. Before him the canal languid across the district. A few brave ducks paddled over the still surface. It was almost perfect; except he never got used to the smell.

The alerted meow signaled his attention to a mass floating towards them. His heart sank; he knew what it was before it came into focus, another victim of the elusive Shadow. But this was different, bigger than the last one. The tabby leaped from the crate and scurried to the edge of the sidewalk. Tangled in a pile weeds and garbage were two torsos with two pairs of legs and three arms.

Wait…

Morbid curiosity brought him the three paces to the edge where the cat sat. Two bodies, one missing a right arm and wearing damaged armour. A soldier, he frowned, nothing good will come of this. A second man, entangled around the other, appeared dressed as a dock worker.  The bodies caught the attention of a small group who clamoured to the water’s edge. As before, two of them waded into the filthy waterway to retrieve them. He dropped the last piece for the cat; his stomach couldn’t withstand another bite.

By the time he reached the group the first bloated floater was on shore. A man with a toolbox nodded at him as he took his place beside him. His weary eyes drifted to the body, as if to say, ‘looks like another one’. The fear was absent from this group, something told him they grew accustomed to the morning arrival. Like a twisted game Shadow played on the people. He didn’t know the intent behind it, was it a simple disposal of a corpse, or was Shadow leaving a message.

The working-class men and a few laundresses went to their task in a routine manner. Heaving the bodies onshore, ignoring the decaying flesh, the putrid smell, and searched the remnants of their clothes. He watched the grim smile crease their lips as they slip valuables in their pockets. A young boy emerged from a nearby house, calling to the group.

“Another one?”

“Get a guard will ya!” The man with the toolbox shouted and the boy darted down the street. “’bout time they did something useful eh” he nodded to Zack, who returned the sediment with a nod.

Once they picked the body clean, they went about their day; abandoning the few with the grim task of watching the corpses until the authorities arrived. The queasy feeling in his stomach urged him to leave. But he needed to stay; the curiosity before him drew him in.

The dock worker resembled the last body; bruised, bloated and a critical wound to his chest. He couldn’t ignore the twisted face, agony, and dread that scarred the youthful features. He hated that he was growing accustomed to the carnage. He imagined that was what war was like. A mutilation and degradation beyond comprehension. And he prayed to Zander he would never have to experience it.

Acid rose in his throat at the sight of the dangling slivers of skin hanging from the soldier’s face. Three gouges split his face wide open, from the left ear to the right of his jaw. He swallowed the vomit creeping to his mouth as he stared at the empty decaying eye socket. Similar markings sliced his breastplate causing the metal to curl at the edges. But the conversation on the observer’s lips was the missing arm. Severed at the shoulder with only squirming maggots remaining. The sheath at his hip was empty; a missing weapon. Despite the carnage the soldier’s chest was intact.

Did he stumble upon the hunter; an interruption that cost him his life? Or was the soldier the victim of a Mage attack fueled by the murder of their comrade?  

By the time Zack reached the Assembly Hall the stout guards shut the great mahogany doors. From where he stood, he heard Castellan address the conference attendees. Despite his pleads the men in crisp brown and grey ceremonial attire refused to grant anyone access. He didn’t know which was worse, knowing Lex was in there wondering why he was absent or needing to speak to his superior who remained out of reach. Gaggles of lords bickered and argued but the unimpressed gate keepers “had orders.”

“Zack, my lad, what are you doing out here?” Lex’s voice carried through the hallway and drowned out the chatter. His imposing form cleared the way as the aging general approached him.

“Sir,” he saluted, “I wish to speak to you about the matter we discussed earlier.”

“Well good thing I’m not in there eh?” he chuckled, gesturing to the men at the door. “Come, I have much to discuss with you as well.”

Lex’s eyes surveyed the common areas as Zack reported the morning’s events. His voice quivered as he described the bodies, but he couldn’t give into fear, it was a person behind the killings; he was sure of it. But who would enjoy killing Mages? He frowned and remembered where he was, who here wouldn’t enjoy it?

“I admit this disturbs me more than I thought it would. Do you have any proof connecting the bodies in the canal and this Shadow?”

“No sir, not yet. The patrol officers won’t confirm whether the victims are Mages or not. I have no access to their reports and the witnesses refuse to talk.”

“Allan won’t breech the topic of this Shadow figure, I’m afraid he refuses to cooperate.”

“What are your orders Sir?” A tinge of hope prevailed in his tone; anticipation that a correct course will be provided and in a few days the world would be right again. But that faith was demolished when Lex rubbed the back of his neck while glancing over his shoulder.

“Allan received an urgent messenger from Lord Beckham requesting his presence in Alexanderia immediately. Allan is packing as we speak. Him and I will be taking the ferry back to the kingdom within the hour.”

“Is everything alright?” Lord Beckham was High Lord and acted in Allan’s place when he was absent. But what was so important he needed Allan to return?

“According to Beckham the Harbour Master is threatening to sink half the fleet.”

“Wait, why?”

“The colony was a terrible idea from the start.” Lex sighed. “Apparently Lord Edward wanted more ships to accompany the convoy. The Admiral disagrees, refuses to reduce the fleet at home and leave the kingdom vulnerable.”

“And the harbour Master?”

“Says he’s running out of places to anchor the ships. And demands the Admiral make a choice.”

“And sinking our ships is an option?”

“Apparently him and the Admiral are at odds over who actually owns the shipyard.”

“Isn’t it a bit dramatic sir?”

“What do you expect from sailors? Regardless we are returning today.” He pulled Zack closer, so only he could hear what came next. “I must confide in you, that I had an ulterior motive for accompanying Allan on this trip. For the last few months, I have been in search of a person of interest. I had expected to receive word of their whereabouts from my contacts here. But so far nothing.”

“This person of interest, do you suspect them to associate with the radicals Castellan mentioned?”

“It’s hard to assume anything in this case. Whether the radicals or this Shadow, it has become apparent that I find this person.”

“I can find them Sir,”

“I can’t ask you to intervene. If they sense any inclination that we know of their location they will vanish. Time is not on our side and I can’t afford to lose them.”

“I don’t understand, do you want me to follow them? Do they pose a risk to Alexanderia?”

“Sorry lad, but that’s classified information. All I will say is if you discover them, report to me directly. Do not engage with this person.”

“Do you have a description?”

“Young, blonde, carries an Opal staff.”

“What does the king want with this Mage?”

“I have my orders and you have yours. I repeat Zack, don’t engage with them or it might be your last.”

“Uncle,” he whispered, “I don’t like you keeping secrets like this.”

“My hands are tied. Find out what you can about this Shadow. In the meantime, keep your ears open for talk about my Mage.”

Lex left him to his task, retreating to the stables to prepare the horses. He ran his fingers through his hair, wondering how time off turned into a goose chase. Chris rambled on about Bayliss and test subjects in a basement. He stumbled upon Mage bodies floating in the canal linked to some otherworldly “Shadow” character. And now Lex was hunting a dangerous Mage who may or may not be in the kingdom. What is going on here?

“Help!” a servant cried from the top of the stairs. “Sir knight, thank the gods!” She waved him to her. Climbing two stairs at a time, “hurry, it’s the queen!” The woman he sat next to on his first day. He hasn’t spoken to her since but he followed the servant down the hall.

At the top of the steps a shriek from the opened door summoned him to the room three doors to his left. Clutching his sword he raced to her aid, trying to not think of the heroes in Chris’s romance books. The sun flooded the room from the open window, when his eyes adjusted, he saw the flushed queen with a dagger to her neck.

“Chris you bastard!” He drew his sword as the servant cried.

“Did you expect anything less?” Chris grinned; holding a pair of emerald earrings for everyone to see. He grinned one more time before shoving the queen into his arms and vanishing through the open window.

He forgot how fast his friend was. His nimble form leaped from the window, raced over the crumbling castle wall, and disappeared out of sight. Zack’s own unsteady feet followed and managed to avoid the loose stones and aging mortar. As Chris slipped into a near by tree Zack lunged into the unwelcoming branches.

The thief snaked through the tree limbs while he managed to hit everyone on the way down. Occasionally his friend would grin at him, taunting him as he kept one step ahead. Through the crowded market Zack pushed through baskets and bodies to keep his eye on his mark. He raced through the thick stench of sweat, animals, and pungent spices.

Clawing at shoulders and forcing his way past gaggles of merchants and shoppers. Countless voices and languages cascaded over his ears; the distortion made navigating the crowd impossible. A head of him Chris’s blond locks bounced through the throng of marketers. Of all people, the queen? He was sure they’ll laugh about it over a drink later. But currently only rage flooded his veins.

“Chris! By the Crown of Alexanderia, I’ll have your head!” His obscure plan was forcing him to be the villain. Chris, slipped through the mob like a fish in a river, everyone moved for him; everyone but a blonde woman standing near the clock tower. “Hey lady get outta the way!”

She glanced around the market barely acknowledging the thief who glided against her. He saw the trick before; a common ruse used to pass stolen items to an accomplice. Chris, of course, pretended not to know her as he disappeared behind a spice stand. He fought past elbows and stray dogs, squeezing through two arguing men.

He urged his feet faster, to catch Chris before he was gone for good. But a horse cut across his path, dodging the beast meant his feet tangled together. Everyone moved to avoid him, everyone but the blonde. He tried to swerve but it was too late.

He slammed against her, her boney shoulder jamming into his neck as they toppled to the dirt. The mucky cobble stones dug into his back. But he caught a whiff of a flowery fragrance from her skin. Tangled in legs and a cloak he peeled himself from her.

The squealing of pigs nearby extubated the throbbing in his head. Clutching his head he glanced over to her, she laid on her side gripping her shoulder. He was about to reach out to her when a glimmering object caught his eye. A polished Opal smiled from the mud. His eyes followed the length of the staff studying the Mage it belonged to. She dragged herself to her feet clutching her head as she stood on wobbling legs.

It can’t be…

Theories and assumptions swam through his groggy head. A wanted criminal, an accomplice, or a petty thief. His heart raced, his muscles reacted as if it was life and death. He jumped to his feet and grabbed the distracted woman by her wrist. In one swoop he twisted it around her and pressed it against the small of her back. Countless questions fought each other; his lips paused; waiting for one to win.

 “Tell me where he’s going.” 

“Where who is going?”

“Don’t play games with me.” He glanced at the staff once more; Chris doesn’t work with Mages.  

“Get off!” she shouted, scratching his neck with her free hand. The surprise stung his ego more than the scratch. He recalled Lex’s warning about not engaging the Mage and released his grip as a precaution. “You have me confused with someone else.”  

“Give me what he gave you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her eyes survey the crowd of spectators joining the spectacle. “Move on, before you get hurt.”

“Are you threatening a member of the royal guard?”  

“If you lay another hand on me, it won’t matter what you’re a member of.”

“Where are you from son?”

A black panther sauntered between them; his golden eyes moved over Zack’s body.  He never felt like prey before, and the way the creature assessed him made him sweat. Although his smooth voice was calm and even; Zack was aware he was guarding the Mage. Every manner of deadly attributes was pointed at him; massive paws with white claws poking through the pads and his teeth which he wasn’t shy of showing. In all aspects he appeared as a natural animal. But animals don’t speak. And a strange ruby birthmark scored his forehead.

A whimper from behind her caught his attention. A child, glanced around the forming crowd like a fawn abandoned in a field. Two pigtails of strawberry hair curled to her shoulders. An odd group of travelers, he thought. The likely hood of them being accomplices slimmed with each second.

The Mage cleared her throat; regarding him with a level of contempt no Mage in Lollardum dared to muster. Despite being a head shorter than him, her athletic frame meant she was agile enough to club anyone who got too close. There was no doubt, she was the one Lex sought. A seeding visceral gut reaction told him so. It burned through his veins, shouting that he found his prize. But why her?   

“I am Captain Dawson, of the Alexanderian Knights.” He stood straight as if addressing a superior and matched the panther’s demeanor.  “I’m on official business, and your friend is an accomplice. She needs to come with me for questioning.”

“I’ll be damned before I go anywhere with you.”

“Pardon us Captain,” The panther interjected, “we are on official business from Bellavere. She is not involved with this unfortunate, but most certainly, serious situation of yours.”

“What sort of business would you two and a little girl have with the king?”

 “What’s that supposed to mean?” the Mage retorted.

“We were sent on behalf of the Queen to escort Lady Rose to Queen Cecilia’s Court to become a new Lady in Waiting.” The child gave a brief curtsey before returning to the panther’s side.

From his time around the palace, he knew her curtsy fell short of the required grace for such a position.  She carried herself like a rural girl; accompanied by messy hair and dirty knees. But they had more pressing matters to attend to; their exchange was gathering attention. She sensed it too, she tightened her grip on the staff. She was preparing to fight, and that was the last thing he wanted. Please take your friends and run.

“They sent the likes of you instead of properly trained guards?”

“How dare—”

“Queen Margaret dispatched all available soldiers to the surrounding villages to quell rumors’ of invading mercenaries. Moira, comes highly trusted by the queen.”

“Queen Margret hates everyone,” He corrected but he admired the panther’s dedication to the lie.

“She comes highly recommended.”

“You’re risking a lot by coming here Mage.”

“I’m dedicated to my job.”

“Or the price was right.”

“Perhaps,”

“Whether I believe you or not, I still need to search you,”

“Like hell you are.”

“Moira,” the panther paused, “not this time.”

“Fine,” she sighed. “But you’ll live to regret it.”

After handing her staff to the child she stood with her feet apart, arms stretched and facing away from him. He cleared his throat but his hands hovered over her body; the eyes from the crowd gave him pause. A mangy fishwife licked her pink gums as she watched the scene.

Two stall owners with olive skin, scarves on their heads and a torso like an ox met his eyes. He didn’t know which side they were on but he dreaded to encounter their glove size fists. A woman with hair in a worn headwrap clutched her child to her hip, mouthing what he thought was ‘please run’ to Moira.

He swallowed the lump building in his throat. He searched people countless times before, but it felt wrong to do it for appearances sake. He understood the importance for her to blend in but he doubted she could. Chris wore the kingdom as if it were a second skin, while the defiance behind Moira’s eyes set her apart. While they carried a beaten dismal expression, her fire demanded more, demanded better. She flinched when his hands moved to her waist, then her hips and thighs.

Two foppish men with greedy eyes and stained ruffles at their necks whispered to each other. Their grin wormed inside his stomach.  He knew what passed through their minds as he touched her. But this was business.  The throng of people enclosed them; he swore he could feel their rotting breath on his neck. The dirty nails running over his skin. Their murmurs whispering their blood thirsty desires in his ears. He reached her ankles and stepped back. When she faced him, he didn’t see a killer glaring back. He stared murders in the face as they lied and pleaded. She wasn’t one of them.

“Hope you’re happy.”

He glanced at the staff, wondering if he made a mistake. He swore he saw the same staff in the hands of other Mages. But his gut gnawed at him. There was a missing to the puzzle and it was within his grasp. He considered the panther’s claws, ruthless and sharp. A magical beast had to be capable of shredding armour. Were they the culprits from last night, the ones who slain the others?

His head swam, he didn’t know what to believe. He pictured her sneaking in the shadows, cloaked in darkness as she commanded the creature to attack the unsuspecting soldier. The screams echoed in his ears as the metal ripped from its fasteners. The crimson blood splattering the wall as she grinned. He didn’t know which path to pursue. He had orders to not engage, which he failed to follow. The crowd sneered; the beasts grew restless. Whatever was to become of them, it had to wait.

“I suggest you leave as soon as you conclude your business. If I see you again, I can’t promise the same outcome.”

He pushed past the disgruntled crowd clenching his fists and avoiding the spit. Some called after him, coaxing him to ‘rough her up’ and ‘show her who’s boss’. But he did enough damage for one day. He came face to face with the person who was to remain nameless. The bystanders dispersed, cursing at Moira as she shoved through the hatred. But at least she left alive. Nothing made sense, he wracked his brain over why Lex was after her. Why was she so dangerous he had to keep his distance?

Revisit Chapter Twelve

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