The Blade Within
Raike - Book One
We were days away from the fourth new year in as many seasons, the coronation of Emperor Markolo VII – the Snake of Adiun – loomed over us all, civil wars raged in every pocket of the known world, and I had just walked five hours through the dead of night in some backwards province because an orphan child no one cared about had been abducted in broad daylight.
To make matters worse for myself, I was about to break one of the most sacred rules of the company. I was going to offer someone the name I was born with.
There was a faint glimmer of recognition from the young sesta who received me at the orphanage. With any luck she thought I was a different Brayen, perhaps one with a lot more influence than the person standing in front of her. It didn’t occur to me until later that I probably was the most influential Brayen to have come through there, though it wouldn’t have done either the sesta or myself any good. That name was all but dead to me, a relic from twenty years ago. But after walking all night I figured it was the easiest way to get me into the building.
The glint in the sesta’s eye changed. Her face was already puffed and red, a night without much sleep. I guessed she had yanked the door open as quickly as she did because I was supposed to have been someone from Erast’s city watch. There came that moment of disappointment in her, an unwelcomed visitor she would have to shoo away. Then she placed me, an impossible return from the past. “You’re Brayen?”
I did my best to smile, though it didn’t shake my grimace. There was that click in her eyes, the connection made. There was no forgetting me now.
“There was a note,” I said.
The speed at which I had come to this knowledge made her look back at me as though I was a soothsayer. “How …?”
“What did it say?”
She glanced over her shoulder, hoping that someone else would come to her rescue. I wasn’t there for nostalgic reasons. I wasn’t there to rescue the rest of the kids from a life of poverty and starvation. If she remembered me then she knew exactly why I was there. “I should–”
I stepped into the doorway. “What did the note say?”
“‘Her death will live on for decades.’” It seemed to be the first time she had spoken the words out loud.
It came from deep within me; a swell of anger that had been buried for twenty years. “I think you should let me in.”
She was still fighting against her orders from the sesta who ran the place and what she thought was the right thing to do. Considering I was coming in with or without her permission, the right thing to do was to open the door for me. “Are you from the city watch?”
“No. Who was taken?”
She hesitated, searching herself for anything that would get me to leave as quickly as possible. “A girl. Día.”
“From inside or on the street?”
“On the street.”
“Without a single scream?”
“How old is she?”
“Old enough to start using magic but not experienced enough to actually know what to do with it?”
“We don’t allow that here,” snapped the sesta.
I pressed one hand against the door, ready to hold it open in case she tried to slam it in my face, also ready to push my way inside in case someone with a spear or a sword came around the corner. “What’s your name?”
“Nevah,” muttered the woman.
“Right. Children go missing, don’t they? They might be gone for a night or two before getting so hungry they come back, they might even find someone who will take them in. But sometimes they really go missing, don’t they?”
Nevah gave me another nervous nod.
“What did the city watch tell you?”
Her voice cracked. “They haven’t been here yet.”
I pushed on the door, the wooden hinges creaking as it opened. “Nevah? I think you should let me in.”
“Are you here to find her?” she asked, her voice trembling over every word.
“You’ll bring her back?”
“And … whoever took her?”
“That won’t be something you’ll want to see.”
“Will Día have to see it?”
“Ideally? No. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Nevah begrudgingly waved me inside, asked me to wait by the door, and went to find Sesta Silvia. The name chilled me. I remembered her as a short, wide woman with a cane, swinging it through the air with such gusto that the storm clouds themselves stopped to take note of her handiwork.
Little had changed about the place. Everything inside stank of rain, even though it had been bone-dry for days. I don’t mean that it just smelled, no. It reeked, like a wet dog scratching at the door to be let in from the deluge.
The tiles in the entrance were still cracked and worn down to the nub. The drapes over the windows were either woven grass or repurposed sacks which had been stitched together after being rescued from the discards of a merchant’s house.
I’ll be honest, I would have been more than happy to have never set food in that place again. It was like someone had hooked chains to the inside of my chest and weighted them down, and every step closer to the orphanage only made the journey harder. Twice in the last ten years I had to hide nearby, a couple of us separated from the rest of the company. I avoided every street around here but sometimes there are just too many spies and blades to deal with, so you end up hiding behind the old dye house trying not to puke, growling because you should’ve known better than to head south into territory controlled by a rival company.
I turned over what little I knew of the abduction. Día. Thirteen years old. Taken in broad daylight. A note left behind. It was the note which fuelled the fire within me. Why? Why would someone with an education take the risk of leaving something like that behind? If she was a high-born I could understand. Use the note to scare the parents into paying a ransom. But not an orphan. She’s not even the bastard daughter of someone important. If she was, the city watch would’ve been here already. But if they haven’t even bothered to send two sixteen year olds with spears then she’s a nobody. So why would you jeopardize your life by leaving a note for someone who simply didn’t matter?
An old man with a dull, raspy voice spoke from the atrium. I strode around to get a better look, curious to see if I recognized him.
I couldn’t tell. After a twenty year absence, some memories just aren’t as strong as others. All I remember about adult men in here was that they didn’t live in the building. Only the sestas did. Judging by the tiny faces of his audience and the far away stares between each flop of an arm, there was a chance he had droned at me at least once, but not for long. As soon as the kids were able to count beyond their fingers they were carted off to work a full day in exchange for a single meal at noon.
The slift slift slift of sandals against the tiles snapped me back to the present. Sesta Silvia was now the age of a great grandmother. She had saddlebags for cheeks which weren’t far away from drooping below her jaw. Her sun-kissed skin was as cracked as leather from the top of her forehead down to her shoulders, then continuing on from her elbow down to her hands. Perhaps she was as pale and wrinkly as a sheet out of the wash beneath her clothes, making her look as though she was two vastly different people stitched together. You see those types every now and then, standing buck naked by the river, their hands on their hips and complaining about the day as the wind licked itself around their saggy, speckled ass. You can’t help but end up in a sort of trance, caught staring at someone three times your age because half of them is brown from a life in the sun and the rest of them is as white as a fine tunic. You strain every look to figure out if it is a tunic that is simply clinging to their body. Then they bend over, their ass pointing straight at you, and you need a two day hangover to cure the visions that just crippled your mind.
Sesta Silvia hesitated a few steps towards me as she tried to figure out my intentions before I had to say them aloud.
Nevah made the re-introductions. “Sesta Silvia? An old resident has come to help find Día.”
The senior-most sesta peered at me, now more cautious than before. Perhaps I was there to exact justice for some slight in my past, perhaps I was there to prove her wrong on some long forgotten promise of hers that I held burning in my chest for years on end.
But no. There I was, in some ass-backwards part of Erast because an orphan child no one cared about had been abducted on her way home.
“So. You’ve lost another one,” I said, ending the sesta’s speculation.