Squirrel’s eyes beamed as if he’d just found the lost treasure of Gezmek. Understandable, as the merchant’s cart passing by carried a mound of colorful Ammosian silks that shimmered like jewels. Each piece was as alluring as the next, and the boy was spellbound.
Alden appreciated Squirrel’s fascination—they were beautiful. Some fabrics changed from a radiant gold to a deep lavender. Others reflected the green of leaves or the glowing sky, seemingly blending in with the world around it. But beside the brilliant luster, the silks were also desired for their durability.
Looking back to his young friend, Alden frowned. Squirrel desperately needed a new cloak, and one which could deflect a blade would be perfect. What he wore had once been Alden’s, but after years of action and neglect the cloak now bore holes so large that it did little to conceal the thief.
Recently, their troop hadn’t earned much from the Shadowen Thieves Guild. It was barely enough to get by. But after this heist Alden would use his earnings to have a silk cloak made as a gift—he’d forfeit his rations if it meant the boy could survive. As Alden contemplated which color Squirrel would prefer, the thief raised his bow as an eager grin spread mischievously across his face.
So much for the new cloak.
Before the boy could jeopardize their mission, Alden grabbed him by the scruff. Squirrel flinched in surprise, then glanced up with crescent-shaped eyes. He shifted as if he had only been stretching his legs. Alden shook his head, knowing all too well the thief’s inner desires. With a light shove, he released him.
Squirrel scurried away and rested behind a nearby boulder. He watched the parade of travelers, mindlessly waxing his bowstring. Alden could still see the longing in his eyes and couldn’t help but sigh. He still needs a new cloak.
Alden surveyed his other companions on the hill. His shadow commander studied the road below like a hawk stalking prey. He wore a fine, black woolen cowl over a long suede jacket. Secured around his chest, arms, and legs was a complete set of thick boiled leather armor. Alden wished he could afford such luxuries and the idea put a sour taste in his mouth. As if sensing the scrutiny, the commander turned to exchange a glance. A flare of hatred sparked between them. Alden rolled his head away.
Higher up the hill sat Trod and Paige. Trod sat tense and alert. A buzzing bee hovering around his bald head didn’t even break his concentration. He held a bit of rope tight between his hands, weaving it now and again between his dark ebony fingers. He was ready for the ambush to begin in a moment’s notice.
Paige, however, watched the bee with interest. When the bug flew away, the pale, orange-haired woman shifted to watch colorful leaves blow off trees, the passing of clouds, and even the ground. Either she was gauging the outcome of their trap or just bored and awaiting her time to become useful once more.
Rumors were that they were lovers, yet Alden could see no true signs of courtship. He suspected similar gossip was said about himself and his partner. If only.
Alden turned his head to look at her. In the setting sun, her short brown hair glowed like a bush caught aflame as it danced wildly in the wind. The lower half was longer and woven into a raggedy braid which rested on her chest. Alden followed the line down to explore her body’s fit contour. Strong arms held her as she leaned against the hill. His gaze paused when her tunic fluttered in the light breeze showing off a set of toned, leather-covered legs. The glimmer of a hidden dagger winked at him. Then a gust of wind whipped the fabric in a flurry, sending Alden’s eyes back to her face. His partner studied the environment around her with a smile. Kira.
Kira leaned forward as a pair of riders trotted down the trail. Although they looked to be capable protectors, they led no carriage nor wore any signifying colors to identify them with a region. Like the silk cart, they weren’t the intended victims. The thief eased back down into the grass, letting her legs kick up then sway. She huffed and threw Alden a look of impatience, eager to get on with their task.
Alden shrugged. He didn’t mind waiting.
Two dimples formed on each side of Kira’s full lips as she continued to stare at him playfully. Alden wanted to glance away, disallowing his eyes and heart the pleasure of viewing her, but he couldn’t help but smile back. He knew that look. It was the same roguish one she’d given him the day they met, the day fate had allowed him to enter this life.
Movement from around the bend drew their attention. It was a carriage escorted by a troop of well-armed guards. Their clean white robes were cinched by thick leather belts, which held their lengthy scimitars. Thin, shining plate armor protected their bodies. Orange silk capes danced proudly with the troop’s synchronized steps.
The carriage they protected was just as extravagant. Hand-carved details with finely painted trim outlined its curves. Lavishly embroidered curtains hung in the windows behind a decorative screen. Even the steps leading to the door had a chiseled design. All were signs that they, like the goods from earlier, were from Ammos.
“Reynold,” said Trod in a hushed tone to the shadow commander. His voice serious and hard. He pointed down the road.
Reyn nodded, having already seen it. The sleazy man then crouched with a thirsty grin. “Get ready.”
“You must keep your dress pristine, Mayli Drake!” scolded a dry and cracking voice.
Mayli rolled her eyes. “Lidia, our silk is anything but delicate,” she said before biting a spicy chocolate cookie. The snap of the crisp treat sent a layer of crumbs down into her lap, dusting the shimmering orange gown with crumbs.
“But your presentation is!” Lidia growled as she brushed Mayli clean of debris. She leaned back and dabbed her hands clean on a handkerchief. “And today is an important time to show it! Now straighten up. Princes have little patience for such indecorous mannerisms, as should you!” Her lady-in-waiting gave an encouraging slap on her thigh. Mayli obeyed with an irritated moan.
In the absence of conversation, she listened to the slop of mud under the carriage’s wheels, the rhythmic marching of boots crunching dried leaves, the clang of scabbards clashing against armor, and the swoosh of capes and kaftans beating in the wind. One guard sat quietly across from her. His shoulders were drooped and his hand rested away from the hilt of his sword. Dark skin melded with the shadow under the protective cover of his helm and white scarf. Beyond it, Mayli saw that his brow was relaxed and eyes soft as he watched out the window.
It was Mayli’s first time back on the mainland of Vatan since her mother’s murder and the kingdom of Brimley had fallen. Their people had scattered like rats to live in the shadows, and they could be lurking anywhere…
To ensure proper provisions had been made before her arrival, her father, King Bakhari sent guards to work with the local sentries to lock up scoundrels, shoo away beggars, and relocate the homeless out of main streets. Anyone who was still bold enough to represent Brimley was kept under a heavy eye. The guards even spent two days scouting the Cevher Trail looking for possible threats. They found nothing.
Assured she was safe, Mayli relaxed into the corner of the plush seat. She continued to stare. Her new guard was handsome, like many in the force. Each were strong, fit men with an unquestionable dedication to her and her family. Mayli knew many well and cherished their company. This guard, however, she did not know—yet.
His name was Kelvan, or possibly Kent. She couldn’t quite remember. When they were introduced, it had been brief as if she had just met a horse or been presented a ship—just a tool used to serve a purpose, not a friend to provide good company.
She smiled. “Anything interesting out there?”
The guard blinked, unsure if he was being addressed. Mayli watched with amusement as he looked to Lidia as if the old woman cared to see the world around her. She was too focused on threading through the final laces of a white and decorative corset. Mayli eyed the item and sneered, remembering the torturous device would soon be wrapped around her. Then she smiled impishly.
She flashed her eyes to the guard. “You’ll have to help with that later. Lidia’s fingers are growing weak, but I’m sure your strong hands can tighten it nicely around me!” Mayli leaned in toward the guard with an inviting gaze.
Lidia ended her fuss with the lace and stared in horror. “Mayli Drake!”
“What?” Mayli cried innocently. “I can’t put it on myself! And you complain about your crooked old fingers all the time! Why shouldn’t the man help my lady-in-waiting so nobly?” She winked at the guard.
Sour wrinkles grew around the woman’s tight-pursed lips. The glare enhanced the old woman’s age, making her appear ancient. Mayli batted her eyes to her guard, expecting an alluring smirk or bite of interest to her invitation. However, he lacked either, and only shifted uncomfortably as he averted his gaze back out the window. Mayli sighed and leaned back against the wall to do the same. Kendel, she finally decided, bored her.
She wished her previous escort, Charli Damgard, was accompanying her. Mayli was sure that, by now, they would have been deep in conversation about the differences across Vatan’s landscape. Charli would go on to explain that, unlike the desert island of Ammos, the leaves on the mainland changed in color and then fell off because the trees were preparing for the colder months. Although she knew already, she would listen. There was always something Charli could enlighten her about as he was well-traveled and had served in the war.
When the topic of local knowledge became exhausting, Charli and she would philosophize over something silly, like what made the best archer: a cat or a rat. Mayli guessed a cat, but she knew he would—for the sake of challenging her—claim the rat as the victor for reasons she’d fail to understand. Charli always made a point to help expand her knowledge and discuss anything to keep her mind from wandering down a dark path. A charming trait he developed to help her forget the horrors from three years past.
An earthy crack boomed, jarring Mayli from thought. Her guard no longer possessed his calm demeanor and was now ready and alert—one hand tight around the hilt of his sword and the other on the door’s handle. Lidia, however, took a calm breath and put her hands in her lap. She then peered out the window. Seeing nothing but a wall of trees, she shrugged, unconcerned.
Then, horses whinnied and the carriage began to shake. At first only slightly, but then violently as the rolling thunder grew. Just as Mayli turned her head to look she saw several boulders charging down the hill. She threw herself away from the window and clung to Lidia, who only now realized the severity of their situation. Together, they prepared for impact.
Alden leapt onto the overturned carriage. As it teetered, he steadied himself into a crouch and pulled at the door. “Locked,” he called.
Kira landed alongside him, taking out a set of small tools. Alden guarded while she picked the lock, but there wasn’t much of a fight left. The landslide had gone exactly as Paige and Trod had planned, leaving many guards lost under rocks and logs. Those who had survived were facing a worse fate battling shadows.
Squirrel stayed on the hill using an unfallen boulder as cover as he exchanged arrows with an archer below. Alden feared the contest between bows would end soon with his friend on the losing side, but Reyn slipped past a flurry of blades and tumbled to introduce his long rapier into the back of the Ammosian archer. A loud cry echoed off the hills.
“And open,” Kira said. With a flick of her wrist, the carriage’s door swung wide.
Alden inhaled as the alluring smell of spiced perfume whiffed out. Together they cautiously peered inside. Pillows, blankets, and the drapery hung over everything like a gypsy den. Cookies littered the floor.
A young woman sat rubbing her head. He guessed her to be only a few years younger than himself at the tail end of her teen years, but her thick makeup hid the truth. She had tanned olive skin, which lay mostly hidden behind a white feathered jacket and shimmering orange dress. Wrapped loosely around her black hair was a silk scarf to match the gown.
A guard was crouched beside an older woman, checking for a pulse. Before he could catch a read he threw his head up, noticing them. He stood and attempted to release his sword from his scabbard. However, from within the confines of the small overturned carriage, he knocked his elbow against the side, failing to draw his blade completely out.
“Lemme help ya with that!” Kira offered kindly, then dove in. Her boot met his chest and sent him against the arched roof with a grunt. Kira gripped the hilt and twisted it free from his scabbard. In one quick motion, she used the man’s own blade to split his neck.
Alden winced as the young noble screamed, watching the murder. But no blood escaped the guard. The man coughed from the blow, then blinked.
“Damn Ammosian silk,” Kira growled. Before the guard could fight back, she knocked him out.
Now safe, Alden hopped down with a thud, startling his own victim. She backed away as if she could flee. Alden shook his head. Sorry, there’s no escape milady, he thought apologetically. He had been assigned to handle her as gently as possible. All he could do was hope their client would too.
Alden creeped forward but the woman swiped. He jerked back, dodging claws to his face. Seizing the opportunity, she hopped up to escape the carriage, but Alden snatched her jacket and yanked. A buckle snapped and her sleeve slid down her arm. Feathers exploded into the air as she fell into him.
Alden stared in disbelief at the woman’s tattooed shoulder. As expected, it was Ammosian; a falcon with wings spread in the shape of a pulled composite bow with four-pointed stars flanking its sides and head. But because the crest was outlined with a shield, Alden knew it wasn’t just a noble coat of arms…
She was royalty.
His breathing stopped, but his heart pounded loud in his ears. Not even the continuous screams from outside the carriage could compete. He felt her trembling in his arms and realized then that he was squeezing her. Timidly, Alden broke his gaze from the brand and locked eyes with the frightened princess, Mayli Drake of Ammos.
“Nice!” said Kira.
Alden glanced at Kira, expecting her knowing stare, but the thief was busy pocketing a coin purse and stuffing a few cookies in her mouth. Quickly, he covered the princess’s tattoo. “Ki, focus.”
“Ya, yeah…” she said, sliding over.
Mayli squirmed and threw a kick as Kira approached. The thief grabbed her foot before it met with her face. She held her while Alden finished securing the princess’ arms back with rope. Once bound, he then used the scarf to blind and gag her.
There was a whistle.
“Time to go,” Kira said, clamping Alden on his shoulder before leaping to the open door.
Alden gently hoisted Mayli up, dodging kicking feet as Kira helped pull her out. He followed after.
The thick smell of dirt and blood hit his nose. His gut turned, seeing the litter of fallen Ammosian guards. Many were dead or nearing death and Reyn was taking it upon himself to finish off anyone pleading for their lives. Trod worked at freeing the tethered horses from the carriage, trying to calm them while Paige watched down the path, presumably on the lookout for any travelers. Squirrel, now freed from his post up on the hill, floated around each body, blissfully gathering loot. He found a small sack and emptied its contents into his hand. He squealed with joy.
“Coin?” Kira asked with interest after hopping to the ground.
“Better! Chocolate-covered coffee beans!” he announced as he raised his hand in victory.
“More energy is the last thing you need, Squirrel!” She laughed, turning back to Alden as he handed the princess down.
The boy popped a handful into his mouth and chewed proudly. Reyn furrowed his brow. Squirrel slowed his munching, looked away, and gulped forcefully.
Reyn then nodded at Kira and their prisoner. “Beautiful,” he said as a dark smirk grew deviously over his sweaty face.
Alden sneered and Reyn caught notice. The shadow commander smirked further and Alden pulled his hood tight to ensure it still concealed his face. He felt sick, heart reeling at the revelation of whom he had just attacked. He clenched his fists till the knuckles turned white.