Author: Nathan Heard
Content Advisory: Violence
“Trussk, are you up for this?”
I stare down at the parchment that my employer, Artavan Glass, holds out towards me. The parchment is sealed with the Darek House’s crest. “Yes, sir.”
Artavan nods. As usual, he is wearing an expensive scarlet coat with gold embroidery over an equally expensive white shirt and black trousers. His hair and beard are well-trimmed. As the public head of the Ancients Guild, he always has to look the part.
He hands me the parchment, which I tuck in my interior coat pocket. His piercing brown gaze locks me in place. “You understand the gravity of this situation.”
“Yes, sir,” I say again. “The Matton House is in shambles, and that has created a power vacuum. This is our best chance to establish the Rehn House as more prominent.”
“Exactly,” Artavan agrees. “And the Rehn House is the only noble house that really sympathizes with the Ancients Guild. If the Darek House manages to get on the High Council, we will be all but obsolete.”
“I understand,” I say. “I won’t let you down.”
“See that you don’t,” Artavan says coolly. “I trust you, Trussk, but some of the Guild still have their reservations about you, being an orc.”
“Believe me, I know.”
Artavan nods and gestures to the door. “Leja guide you.”
“And you, Director Glass,” I grin. I know he hates it when people call him that.
* * *
I tug my coat, feeling the parchment crumple slightly in my interior pocket. I do my best to glance around, taking in all my surroundings quickly and quietly without looking like I’m hyperaware of my environment. I’m in a crowded street lined with vendors. The sights, smells, and sounds are a bit overwhelming when I try to take them in all at once. The vendors and buyers are incredibly diverse: humans, orcs, elves, dwarves, and even the humanoid, brightly pigmented elementals here and there. I brush past a tangled knot of civilians and turn down a side street, also equally crowded.
A horse drawing a cart in front of me stamps into a trot for a second, snorting at its driver. It bears down on a young human woman, maybe eighteen years old, who looks up at it in a panic before leaping out of the way—directly into me.
I grunt and catch her.
“You okay, miss?” I ask, self-conscious of my gravelly voice. I let go of her as soon as she’s stable. She’s pretty by human standards. Warm brown eyes and delicate facial features framed by dark, wavy brunette hair. Too short for my taste, though.
“Yes, thanks.” She brushes herself off, flashes me a shy, nervous smile, then tugs her cloak around her and brushes past me.
I walk behind the cart and keep weaving through the crowd. I’m almost to another main street that will take me to the Selannen estate. Hern Selannen, current High Lord of Astine, will not see me himself, of course, but once his attendants read the letter from the Dareks, it will become public knowledge very quickly.
The letter was stolen from an agent of the Enforcers, a covert group trying to promote sympathy in Astine for Dravac’s empire. And it reveals that the Dareks have been engaging in illicit activity. If made public, this knowledge will be a game changer. It will be up to the High Lord and the High Council how to handle this information, but as the Darek and Rehn houses are the two primary contenders for the empty seat on the High Council…the chances of the Rehn House getting a promotion are pretty good.
A human man bumps into me, causing us both to stagger a step backwards. “Excuse me,” he grumbles, glancing me over. “Watch where you’re going.”
He doesn’t move out of the way, instead altering his stance: one foot back, one shoulder back, ready for a right hook.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m just trying to get to the street—”
“Well, you’re gonna have to wait for a minute,” the man says. “See, I want to talk to you, and I’m willing to bet you don’t want to make a scene.”
“What do you want?” I ask, sizing him up. Shaggy black hair and facial stubble, a broken nose, and bright blue eyes. He has at least one knife on him. He’s a few inches shorter than me, and his frame is not quite as wide as mine. All around, he is smaller than me, but I can tell from his posture that he knows how to fight. Still, I don’t doubt that I could take him if it comes to that, as long as I can get in a couple swings before he pulls his knife.
“I told you,” he says. “I just want to talk.”
I glance around. It doesn’t seem like anyone else is paying attention to us, but I can’t push past the man without looking like I’m the aggressor. Especially since I’m an orc. Any passerby would likely believe the human’s side of the story, even if he made up overt lies.
“Okay,” I say, frowning down at him. “Start talking.”
“In that alley,” the man says, nodding to a narrow passage between two nearby buildings. He takes one step closer to me and gestures to the alleyway. “After you.”
I sigh and walk toward the alley, followed by the man. I don’t know how anyone could know about the letter. The guild agents stole it quietly; there were no murders, not even any scuffles. It was a clean burglary with no witnesses. Surely this man just wants some easy money.
Still, it’s hard for me to keep my calm when I see two more thugs in front of me. One of them hops off the crate where he was sitting and crosses his arms over his chest. He stands a little taller than the guy behind me, with lighter, shorter hair and a scruffier beard. The other crook, who doesn’t move from her position on the crate, is a moon elf with chalky grey skin, silvery white hair, and yellow eyes that seem to glow slightly in the dim light of the alley. She’s wearing tight leather armor and trousers. She flips an unsheathed knife, alternating catching the pommel and the blade.
The man in front of me glances at the man behind me. “No trouble, Sid?”
“No, no need for trouble,” the man behind me—Sid—says. “This guy’s cooperative.”
“Good,” the one in front of me nods. “Alright, sir, let’s make this fast and painless. We think you have something that belongs to our friend. Give it back to us and you’re free to go.”
My heart thuds, but I remain calm externally. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, scoping out the alleyway as I talk, trying not to move my head at all while taking in as much of my surroundings as I can. I don’t know exactly how close Sid is to me. The other man is a few paces away, far enough back that I couldn’t lunge without him having time to prepare himself.
“Then you’ll have nothing to hide if I ask you to turn out your coat pockets,” the man says, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Right?”
Looks like a fight is inevitable at this point. May as well get as much of a surprise advantage as I can.
“Of course,” I say, shrugging my coat off. I hold it out and take a couple steps toward him. I don’t hear Sid’s footsteps behind me; that means there’s at least a little distance between the two of us. The man takes a couple steps toward me, reaching out to take the coat. The elf woman catches her knife by the pommel, but this time she doesn’t throw it again.
I take a deep breath. Here we go.
I toss the coat up in front of the man, blocking his vision for a moment. I swing in with a fast left hook, punching through the coat and making solid contact with his jaw.
He staggers backwards and I capitalize on the few seconds this buys me. I grab my coat before it can hit the ground and sling it around my left arm. As thick of a bundle as it is, it will minimize any damage that the woman’s knife would do. And as I grab the coat, I lunge forward and follow up on the man, punching him in the stomach. He doubles over, falling to the ground.
I turn just in time to see Sid throwing a punch at me. I bring my left fist up, taking the brunt of the blow on my arm. He has a harder punch than I first expected. Still, not hard enough. I retaliate with a strike of my own; he’s still off-balance from his own swing, and as my strike hits home I lunge forward, causing him to trip over my foot. He hits the ground with a thud.
I turn to face the elf woman. She takes a moment longer to size me up. She holds her knife at the ready, but she clearly knows that my coat will protect my arm from the knife. What’s more, I don’t think she wants to risk damaging the parchment that they somehow found out is in my coat.
She glances at my arm one more time, then suddenly throws the knife down. It embeds itself in my left foot.
“Agh!” I shout in pain, then grunt again as she dashes forward and kicks me in the stomach. I stumble against a crate, feigning more pain than I actually feel. When she comes in for another kick, I’m ready. I grab her ankle and fling up, using her own momentum to throw her upside-down. She hits the ground hard on her shoulder, rolling into a crate with a crash.
Sid is on his feet again, fists balled. He’s wearing brass knuckles now. I reach down and pull the knife out of my foot, growling as blood soaks my boot. I level the knife at him. “Get out of my way.”
I spit. “If you insist.” I rush him, slashing down with the bloody knife. He blocks the swing by grabbing my wrist, and we grapple over the knife.
He glances behind me. “Skyler!”
I glance over my shoulder. The first man—Skyler—is coming at me with a knife of his own. I shove Sid as hard as I can, knocking him into a crate, then turn and in one quick motion grab Skyler by the throat and shove him against a wall. The force of my thrust causes Skyler to drop his knife. He grabs at my hand, trying to pry my fingers off his neck. I pull him closer to me, then shove him against the wall again.
Sid kicks me in the back of the knee. He got up a lot faster than I thought he would. My knee buckles, and Skyler pushes me. I trip over Letha’s outstretched leg and crash to the ground. I start to roll over, but I’m not fast enough. Sid has grabbed a short plank of wood from an old crate, and he brings it down on the back of my neck.
Stars explode in my vision, and my vision doesn’t clear up quickly. Though I try to resist, it isn’t hard for them to pull the coat off my arm. I glare up at them as they rummage through it. Skyler finally produces a small piece of parchment from the interior pocket of my coat.
“What is it?” the woman asks. I can’t see her from where I’m lying; I can only hear her voice, but I can tell from where it’s coming that she’s standing up.
“Hell. This is only a library receipt,” Skyler says.
I cough. “What?”
Skyler looks down at me. “Yeah. Nice going, agent,” he says, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He throws the coat back to me.
“What do we do with him now?” Sid asks.
“I vote we kill him,” the elf says, coming into my vision. She’s massaging her shoulder, and I can already see a nasty bruise forming on her cheek.
“That wasn’t the mission, Letha,” Skyler says. “We can’t draw any more attention to ourselves, not after Stormbanks. You know that.”
She pouts. “Yeah, I know. Knock him out, then?”
Skyler nods. “That’s our best option.”
I hear footsteps approaching, then Sid’s voice: “Alright, ugly, lights out.”
I barely have time to brace myself before the blow from his club knocks me out cold.
* * *
It takes me a moment to remember where I am and what happened. When I do, I groan. “Crap. Crap, crap, crap!” I lash out, punching a crate next to me before I sink back to the ground, gingerly feeling the back of my head. There’s a nasty bruise there, still slightly sticky with blood.
What to do now? I don’t know how long it’s been. Judging by how dark it is, night has fallen. There’s no trace of the three thugs. I pick up my coat, sighing in resignation when I see it’s ripped in two places. I pull it back on, then reach into my interior pocket. Empty. I spot a crumpled piece of parchment on the ground next to where my coat had been. Stooping down, I pick it up and flatten it out.
I squint in the dark, struggling to make out the ciphers on the page. Skyler was right: it’s only a receipt from the university library. I haven’t been to Mount Glycil in months, let alone the university. How did that get there?
I sit back against the alley wall, elbows on my knees as I replay the day’s events in my head. I was careful not to let anyone touch me…wait. The human girl. The one who jumped out of the way of the horse…I’m an idiot! I didn’t check my pocket after she left.
I groan, gently massaging the bruise behind my head as I think. Why would the girl have left a receipt in my pocket? Clearly, that wasn’t a mistake. Why would she tell me where she would be? It’s possible that it’s a false clue. But if she had given me nothing at all, there’s no way I would have any lead to go off. So this is my best bet. But why would she do this?
I pick myself up, leaning against the wall as the world spins a little. Alright. What’s my plan? Go to the library, see if she’s there. And if she isn’t? I’m screwed. End of the line.
They took my coin purse from my belt, so I check for the small change pouch I keep tucked in my boot. Gone. Wow, they were thorough.
I sigh. I’m on the south side of Ropolz, a few blocks from the main boulevard, so it won’t be too difficult to find another member of the Guild and borrow some change. The blacksmith three blocks east of me should be at his shop. Still, every second spent finding change for the ferry to Glycil is a second longer I have to wait to get the letter back.
I take a moment to steady myself. When I put weight on my left foot, pain shoots through my leg. I grit my teeth against the knife wound and set out for the blacksmith.
* * *
I’m one of the last ones to board the ferry. It isn’t as late as I thought it was; the ferries will be running between the two floating mountains for three more hours. I hope that will give me all the time I need. Thanks to the Guild blacksmith, I have enough change for a meal and passage back to Ropolz. I’ll have to deliver the letter to the Selannen estate tomorrow morning.
My stomach sways a little as the ferry hits some turbulence. It still impresses me that the people of Astine figured out how to create ships that sail through the air. I close my eyes and rest for about thirty minutes before the ferry pulls into the docking bay at Glycil.
It isn’t hard to find the library. The university is one of the most prominent landmarks of Glycil’s north face, looming a half-mile up the mountainside. Once I reach the university, I ask a group of passing students, and they point me to the correct building. I push through a tall set of wooden double doors and enter the building.
I’m not often impressed by interior design, but the library causes my jaw to drop for a brief second. A gigantic crystal chandelier warmly illuminates the gilded mosaic in the ceiling. The mosaic itself, representing the commonly accepted pantheon of gods, is breathtaking. Golds and whites play around each other in a design almost like a crown on one end, representing Leja, the Father of Life; and reds and blacks form a spiky dagger tip on the other end: Licthrân, the Ruler of Darkness. In the middle, a circle of water, earth, fire, and air connects the crown and dagger. From either side of the circle, wings made of leaves, fur, feathers, and scales fan out in a graceful arc. Finally, four diamond shapes spread out from the circle between the wings, crown, and dagger, each representing the gods of dwarves, elves, orcs, and elementals.
Long aisles of bookshelves are situated along the edges of the ground floor, with the central area containing an assortment of round and rectangular tables. Two balconies above me show that there are at least two more floors, both of which seem to consist predominately of more bookshelves.
And on the first balcony, with her back turned to me, I see a young woman re-shelving books from a pushcart. For a brief second, she turns around and glances down at the ground floor. When she sees me, a smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. It’s her.
She ignores me and goes back to shelving the books. I find the closest stairwell, walk up, and work my way through the maze of shelves until I see her.
“Took you long enough,” she says, turning to face me as I get close. She does not look intimidating in the slightest, but she also has a defiance in her countenance that impresses me. Over a foot shorter than me, an orc, and she shows no sign of fear. Just a calm, collected maturity.
“Where is it?” I ask, ignoring her opening comment.
“It’s hidden,” she says. “In one of the books in the library. Good luck finding it.”
“What do you want?” I take the book that she just shelved and press it down on her cart. She can’t finish her job until she acknowledges me.
She looks at the books, then up to me. “I want in.”
She stares at me, her face unflinching. “The Ancients Guild.”
Oh, god. What do I tell her?
She smiles. “Look, I overheard those goons plotting to jump you. I didn’t want the letter to fall into the wrong hands, so—” She leans forward and plucks the library receipt out of my pocket “—I had to take matters into my own hands. Literally.”
“You stole it from me…” I say, readjusting my coat “…to prevent someone else from stealing it?”
“Right.” She nods. “Thank me whenever you want.”
“Slow down, girl—”
“Aurora,” she says.
She holds out her hand. “Aurora Clearbrook, at your service.”
I shake her hand. Her fingers may be slim, but they have a surprisingly firm grip. “Trussk.”
“Well then, Trussk, you need a letter back, and I need an in with the Guild. Think we can reach an arrangement?”
“Why do you want to join the Guild? You know we’re historians, right?”
Aurora laughs. “Yes. Historians. Well, I’m a librarian. I love…researching…history. Be straight with me, Trussk. I know it’s a spy ring. And I want to help. I’m a valuable asset. You could use someone with unrestricted access to the university.”
She has a kind of overwhelming, rapid-fire way of presenting herself. Her face doesn’t offer any room for negotiation. And I need the letter.
I sigh. “Look, kid—”
“Look, Aurora. I can’t promise you’ll get into the Guild. I mean, you pickpocketed an agent.”
“I know it shows you’re good,” I say, holding my hand up for her to stop. “But I’m not in charge of those kinds of decisions. You get me the letter, and help me get to its destination, and I’ll vouch for you.”
“Perfect. That’s all I ask.” Aurora reaches past me, plucking a book off the shelf from next to my shoulder. She flips the book open and produces the letter.
I shake my head as I take it from her. “You had to?”
She grins. “Just wanted to see the look on your face. C’mon, let’s go.”
I follow her down the staircase. “We’ll get back to Ropolz, get a couple rooms at an inn and hole up for the night, and set out first thing in the morning.”
“Sounds good,” she says. “And if the thugs attack you again? How will you prevent them from beating you up?”
A spike of pain shoots through my head when she mentions that.
She glances back at me. “No answer? Think, Trussk. Anything you learned about them that will help?”
It takes me a few minutes, but finally, something Skyler said clicks in my head. He said something about them having to lay low after Stormbanks. Stormbanks, the highest-security prison for a hundred miles any direction. I grin. “Yes. They won’t be an issue tomorrow.”
* * *
We set out early on the following morning. Again, I push my way through the crowded marketplace, this time with Aurora tailing me. She’s keeping pace with me, even though she’s walking on the other side of the street. She makes it look like we have no affiliation with each other while keeping an eye on my back.
We turn down the side road, this time making it all the way to the end and coming out on a larger, more populated road without any issues. But as I turn back onto the main road, a shaggy-haired man steps out in front of me. It’s Sid.
“Hey, friend,” he says. “Did you find it?”
I grab my coat, allowing the parchment to crinkle under my grip. “I got it.” I grin when I see his purple, swollen eye. I nod to the injury with a quick jerk of my chin. “Are you gonna let me pass, or do you want me to complete the set?”
“Need I remind you that causing a scene will get you in trouble?” he asks. I glance past him to see Aurora walking past me. She’s walking slowly, sure not to drift too far.
“No, Sid.” I grin. “Causing a scene will get you in trouble.” I raise my voice just slightly, emphasizing the names. “And your friends, Skyler and…what was her name? Letha? What was it Skyler said?”
I drop my voice again, growling with savage pleasure when I see his face losing its color. “He said you need to lay low after Stormbanks. What happened? You broke out, is that it?” His face twitches, and I press my point. “And now the most powerful warden in Astine wants you dead? Want me to announce it to the masses?”
“No,” he whispers, his face resigned to defeat.
“I thought not.” My mouth pulls down in a snarl as I give him a little shove. “So back off.”
He shuffles out of my way, head down.
As I brush past him, I notice two other men that seem to be staring. I watch them out of the corner of my eye, then grin when I realize they’re not looking at me. They’re looking at Sid.
“Good luck, kid,” I chuckle as I walk up the boulevard toward the upper city.
* * *
“Well done, Trussk,” Artavan says. He and I are standing at the handrail on the south end of the Ancients Guild’s private courtyard. It’s hidden from the public eye, so we can talk freely here. Artavan continues, “Thanks to your success, the Darek House is facing charges of blackmail. These charges may or may not come to public attention, but either way, while they’re under this kind of negative scrutiny, they won’t try to get seated on the High Council. The position is all but assured to go to the Rehn House, and we have you to thank for that.”
“Thank you, Artavan,” I say. “But I have to point out: someone knew what we were doing. Three thugs tried to jump me multiple times, and they were hired out by someone else.”
Artavan frowns. “And you have no idea who?”
“No,” I say. “But I do know that nobody outside of the Guild knew of our mission, especially not that I was the one carrying it out. Which means, I’m afraid—”
“That there’s a weak link somewhere,” Artavan says, his face stern. Weak link. His terminology for double agent.
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well,” he says, “We will worry about that later. You were successful. That’s what’s important. You did good.”
“Thank you, sir, but that’s another thing.”
Artavan looks at me. “What do you mean?”
I’m glad my skin is a dark, muddy shade naturally. It’s hard for him to tell when I blush, but I’m very embarrassed to admit this to him. “I couldn’t have done it on my own. When I was jumped, they bested me. They would have taken the letter.”
Artavan arches an eyebrow. “But?”
“But someone stole the letter off me beforehand.”
I thought Artavan’s eyebrow couldn’t go any higher. I was wrong. “Someone pickpocketed you?”
“Yes,” I say. “She overheard the thugs planning their ambush, and she intervened. She made herself easy to track, so I found her afterwards. She gave the letter back to me and helped me get it to the Selannen House.” I grimace. “She is the real reason we succeeded today.”
Artavan nods, his brow now furrowing. “Indeed. Do you know why she helped you?”
“She wants to join the Guild.”
“Really.” Artavan nods, intrigued. “I would love to meet this woman.”
“Well, sir, you’re in luck.” I gesture for Artavan to walk back to the public street with me. “She’s waiting outside.”