Chapter Three, Part One: [SoW] Chapter Three, Part One: Shadows of Fangs
The sunbeam of the early morning came violently through slight tears in her tent and down onto Sekhenna’s shivering body. The night had been cold, the coldest yet of the season and Winter had barely begun.
She rolled from the bed mat and sat up, eyes on the entrance of her tent. It took a moment for her to come back to consciousness, the voice that had scraped her dreams remained lodged in the back of her head like a too large bite of bread in her throat.
“Release Emry Windsholm…”
The command was vivid in her mind. A direct order and one she realized all too late, she couldn’t disobey.
The problem, she sorted as she rummaged through a nearby box for her mug, was that she didn’t know who Emry Windsholm was let alone where she would find the girl in Icehold. The prison was massive, and she wasn’t keen on loitering within its walls longer than it took to meet with Jundal.
The metal gauntlet which had latched onto her wrist carried a heavier weight that morning, with it came a disconcerting realization.
She would always be Ven’alhim.
Her people, her family especially, fought to escape their bonds and fled to a new side of the world where they would be unknown and unkept by fickle masters. She glanced at a painting done by her father, a bundle of falling flowers from a wedding bouquet. It was the last piece he’d done before he’d been killed and she’d kept it ever since. For whatever comfort it might have brought her.
“Farrakha.” She whispered into her empty tent.
“Yes, my dear?” The voice within the gauntlet echoed into her mind. “Did you sleep well?”
She dropped a pile of ground beans into her cup and stood.
“Like dead weight. Someone kept talking to me.”
The voice giggled, a foul noise like rusted nails across polished slate. Pleased with itself for its petty work during the night it released a breath like the unfurling of an old dusty scroll.
“I saw you were troubled, and I wanted to ease your worries.”
She grimaced as she passed from the tent into the mid morning sun. Other denizens of The Camps meandered through the chilly air, their breath hanging before them in thick clouds of frost. A few of them nodded at her as she made her way to the other side of the village and to the well.
Her thoughts flurried against the presence of Farrakha within her mind. A power she’d never understood and yet one which came naturally to her. The Gauntlet which provided her the ability to manipulate the Ether of the world came with a price. She should have known better.
She’d have known better if she were still under the tension of the Brass Rope.
She approached the well, fighting the presence of the gauntlet within her as she knelt to retrieve a cup of water.
“Good morning, Khenna.” A boy’s voice came from behind her. She jumped, and turned to face him. It was Haim, waiting in line with an empty wooden cup and unkempt hair. “Today is the day isn’t it?”
“For what little one?”
She stepped out of line, racking her clouded memory for the answer to his question.
“Today you’re going to talk to the King, aren’t you?”
Her stomach dropped.
Haim stepped around her and dunked his cup in the half full bucket as the water line grew longer behind them.
“I sure am.” She knelt and put her bare hand on his head while he sipped from the cup. “I will tell him all about you and your friends and how much you want new beds and plenty of new toys.”
The boy looked around as if he couldn’t hear her.
“I think we should get more tents.”
She cocked her head. “I agree, but what brought it to your attention?”
He looked back behind him, and she followed his eyes to a couple she didn’t recognize. Likely new additions to the growing number of Camp dwellers, the woman, the younger of the two in her late teens, gripped a baby swaddled in dirty sackcloth and behind her stood a muscular, unshaven man.
“I met them, Rhys and Cindrea.” Haim pointed and the couple waved. “They just got here yesterday, but they are nice. Cindrea is sick.” He took a long sip from the cup.
She nodded. “Sick with what?”
Haim shrugged and turned away, deciding he was finished with their conversation while he ventured off to find his friends.
Sekhenna spared a second glance at the couple, bundled tight together beneath a worn blanket, threadbare and covered with stains of all kinds. Still, even the worst covering made the cold wind better to battle.
She caught Rhys looking at her and turned, ducking behind a row of tents on her way to her own. When she’d arrived, she found Dhama sitting inside with a warm cup in her hands, her fingers interlaced and resting upon her lap.
“Sekhenna.” She spoke somberly, with patience. “It has come to my attention that you will be having audience with the King today, soon, no doubt.”
Sekhenna took a seat across from her and pulled a woolen blanket around her shoulders.
“Yes, I have hope to appeal to him for aid.”
Her friend eyed her cautiously. “You know you are a wanted woman.”
She flipped her flowing dark hair back over her shoulder and grinned. “By everyone this side of Bastrion.”
Dhama fought a grin, but couldn’t help it. They both broke out into a short fit of laughter before Dhama was able to collect herself.
“Your allure aside, what I said last night still holds true. I am worried for you, Khenna. We need you, and we don’t want to lose you. I am here to offer an alternative.”
Sekhenna calmed her laughing fit and focused, taking a sip of cold tea as she waited for her friend to continue.
“Through the Channels, we can get you and as many of us as can fit out of the city. I’ve made contact with a merchant ship who is willing to secure us safe passage to the south. He will take us wherever we would like, should we be able to come up with enough scales. We can take all of the Camp with us if his rig is large enough. We can be free of King Harama, the Companies and this blighted city.”
Sekhenna waited, digesting the information for a moment.
“But…?” She prompted.
“But… we need a lot of scales, and you are one of the only thieves I know here worth her weight.”
She took another sip.
“I’ll consider it, after I speak with the King.”
Dhama set the cup beside her bed. “What do you think is going to happen when you speak to him? Jundal was arrested for a crime you wanted to commit. Houses were burned to the ground because of a job you started. And now you think it’s prudent of you to waltz into the courtyard of the King you tried to rob?”
Skehenna nodded. “That more or less sums it up, yeah.”
Her friend shook her head and took her cup from the floor for another sip. Her words came from a place of concern, Sekhenna knew it, and she was right. Were she to arrive with no bartering chip, King Harama would have no reason to hear her out, and yet, she did have a bartering chip.
“It will be easy, truthfully.” Sekhenna replied after a long drink. “I will be assuring the safety of his people, because if he doesn’t give me what I want he will have a much larger mess on his hands. I have the power to get anyone out of that prison, Dhama. Who is to say it won’t just be my friend?”
Dhama’s face contorted. “Have you thought about us? Here, at the Camps, if you let a bunch of murderers and thieves into the streets, what will happen to us?”
In her mind, the response came easily. She’d rehearsed it, because she knew this would be Dhama’s reaction to her plan. It had always been. Ever since they’d met at The Camps, she spouted wisdom with a unique moral authority Sekhenna had never seen eye to eye with her about.
Instead, what came out of her mouth were not her words, but was still carried by her voice.
“I suppose we will deal with the fallout when we get there, won’t we? The Camps are too poor to rob and everyone in those tents are already dead. It’s just a matter of when.”
The gauntlet pulsated in her hand, the spines piercing her wrist shivered as if they breathed. With each word she felt the gauntlet tangibly grow heavier on her body as the presence within her grew more forceful.
“You are a good soldier.”
Dhama did not reply. With tight lips, she only shook her head.
“I didn’t mean that.” Sekhenna blurted, suddenly in control of her words once more.
Her friend stood and without a word, left her tent.
“Well said, child.”
Sekhenna didn’t acknowledge the voice.
Instead, she stood herself and finished her tea, the wet grounds slopped against her lips as she swallowed it all in a gulp. Carelessly tossing the cup into the crate across from her, she scanned the room for her second outfit. A less stained pair of pants and a thick winter blouse. She slipped them on over her sleeping clothes and fished a corset from another half destroyed crate. Her mind whirled at the realization that Farrakha had taken her over and spoken in her stead. This time she noticed, but what if, one day, she didn’t?
“No good.”She told herself, cinching the corset around her blouse and fishing in her sheets for her cloak. “I am on a deadline.”
She dragged her cloak from within the depths of her sheets and wrapped it around her before she left. Everything she needed seated uncomfortable around the skin of her wrist as she passed through The Camps a second time.
Most of the people milled about, some of them tended to chores, others sat exhausted from the woes of life on empty crates and scrapped benches. Haim was playing with a few friends in the same gutter as before, this time thankfully with no leftover meat washed into it.
She trudged through the snow that had already soaked her boots until she arrived at the Center Square, a small fountain bubbled weakly in the cold, the pools of water frozen solid. She passed by it and through a growing crowd gathered around a town crier preaching about the coming end, that his god, Kor, would one day return and seek revenge for the wrongs committed against him.
She laughed to herself as she moved down the crowded street, the voice of the crier grew distant as he pledged to the listeners that weekly donations would spare them from Kor’s wrath. She passed by a city guard stationed near a well-polished building. Thick spruce logs supported a metal veranda, which had been hammered thin and tied through the logs to protect the porch from rain. On the porch sat a venerable and wrinkled old man.
“Cotts,” Sekhenna approached, then bowed.
“Ah, the girl.” His creaky voice echoed beneath the sheet metal and bounced back to her ears. “That time already, hmm?” He pushed hard on the arms of his chair and struggled to stand.
“Couldn’t have come any sooner, that’s how I feel.”
Cotts let out a sorry laugh and managed to drag himself to his feet with the help of the guard, who kept his eyes on Sekhenna’s hands the whole time.
Old Man Cotts was notorious around Godspine, a former newsie, he had grown wealthy on the distribution of information and had built an empire through making various contacts in various empires. When a nobleman cheated on his spouse, Cotts knew. When a precious artifact from the lost age was uncovered, Cotts knew. When the Kharazhund Armies prepared offenses against the far north, Cotts warned the King.
It was in one of these early warning meetings in which Cotts brought Sekhenna up to King Harama. Thanks to a few scales she’d slipped him weeks before, the old man owed her a tiny favor. She assumed he didn’t care whether the King wanted her alive or dead, but she made sure he mentioned the Gauntlet, and that she was Ven’alhim.
“Likely, he’s going to execute you for being in his presence too long.” Cotts mumbled as he led her back to the main Street and toward the fortified bunker that stood at the end of the cobbled path. “Harama is not regarded for being level headed.”
“I don’t want level-headed.” She replied, tossing a bag of coins to the guard. “For my protection.”
The guard smirked and pocketed the satchel.
The trio arrived at the front gate of the visiting King’s quarters, an embassy estate owned by House Tilliak, a nobleman with a reputation in Godspine far larger than his ego, which was in itself heavier than all the scales in his private reserves.
Old Man Cotts rapped a knuckle against the door and immediately, as if the guard within expected him, a slot slid open.
“State your business.”
Sekhenna recognized the gravelly sound of the man, not for who he was in name, but rather who he was to the city. The doorman spoke low, quickly with a rasp. Likely from years of long nights smoking Greenleaf. A popular herb for use among the soldiers she’d known. Back home, predominantly used to relax after long, arduous campaigns. Soldiers who carried the weight of the company didn’t care if they were discovered to be taking the substance, though punishable by a few days in isolation and in some more extreme cases, a detoxification period. It meant they’d have a guaranteed place to stay for more than a day or two.
The soldier eyed the three of them, and met Sekhenna’s gaze. His eyelids were surrounded on all sides by small scars.
“Could be combat wounds, or he was stationed on the Isle of Magi when he was first taken into the force.”
The Isle of Magi was well known for its inhospitable environment. She’d been there many times, and met Jundal there before she was able to get away from her Bondmaster. Thanks to the Bark-skinned man from the Isles.
“Lady, state your business.” The soldier repeated.
“I am here to see King Harama, regarding the Camps.” She kept her gaze on him unwavering. “Regarding humanitarian aid due to a surging population.”
The man groaned and closed the sliding door. A heavy bolt popped out of the groove that locked it and the door swung open, revealing the soldier’s body on the other side. A decorated veteran by the look of his cascading medals and glimmering armor.
“Come in.” He gestured to the three of them, but Cotts remained on the stoop.
“I have no business with the king.” He croaked at her as she passed. His guard followed, the sound of Sekhenna’s scales twinkling in his waist bag.
The soldier didn’t bother responding and closed the door behind them, locking it once more as she stepped into a massive parlor decorated with stained redwood fixtures. Pillars extended high to vaulted ceilings with murals painted on each, with a large steel astrolabe which hung from the apex of the ceiling. On either side of the pillars stood grand staircases made of the same treated wood, draped with thick woolen rugs that led to a balcony above them where other clean-shaven and well-groomed officials spoke in hushed tones and shot glances over their backs.
Immediately, she realized how out of place she’d be in the Embassy.
As quickly as the thought came to her, it passed. Not wholly uncertain it hadn’t been pushed away by the presence of the voice in her mind, she followed the soldier between the tall pillars. The pop of her worn soles echoed from the stone floor as they passed through a massive hallway. On the other end stood pair of ominous doors with intricate filigree carved on the upper half. They stood ajar, and further inside she could see an elderly man. Gaunt with wiry grey hair, he sat on a massive throne easily three times her height. He was flanked on either side by heavily armored guards who carried pikes decorated with golden filigree. The tips of each were polished immaculately.
“Come to Godspine from afar, then?” The soldier asked.
A flicker of relief washed over her, thankful he didn’t recognize her from her joint efforts in the late summer which landed Jundal in the predicament he was in.
“No sir.” She replied, slipping into the militant demeanor she’d been forced to practice her entire life. “I live in the camps, sir.”
The soldier grumbled and paused before the double doors.
“In you go, beggar. Good luck with the King.”
Sekhenna bit her tongue.
“I am no beggar.”
She stepped into the meeting hall, her hired help in lockstep beside her.
The frail man stood, his vibrant green cape which wore him more so than he wore it swallowed his shriveled limbs.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, madam?” He bowed, with one eye on her guard.
She bowed in return and crouched immediately to her knees.
“Lord Harama, I am here to see you on behalf of The Camps.” She watched him stand from the bow and return to his seat where he reclined and kicked a leg out while a pair of young attendants delivered him mugs of ale and piles of fruit. “We are suffering, and due to the recent growth in our population we are faced with impossible choices. As I’m sure you have been made aware, this winter will not be kind to us, and we don’t have the necessary facilities to support our number.”
She waited for him to munch down a grapevine, the sick squish of the fruit between his teeth chimed in the hall.
“I’ve heard about your neighborhood’s plight of late. This past summer was not easy on your people.” The smack and pop of his lips as juice from the grapes dribbled down his chin rebounded within her ears.
“Yes, my lord.”
The King plucked a fleck of grape skin from his teeth before he continued.
“So, what is it you might require? I trust you’ve attempted the appropriate channels. Perhaps the Herriman Company has leftover lumber for you to purchase?”
She tensed her jaw. “It is a more dire situation than such, lord. I fear we are unable to expand due to the Herriman Company lots. They occupy too much space for us to grow our streets further without intermingling with the neighboring districts. Our intention, however, is to avoid spreading our land but rather to find jobs or homes for the recently displaced.”
King Harama paused a moment, her words settling on the stone while he considered.
“Tell me, young lady, what is your name?”
“Sekhenna.” She replied honestly. If the King was familiar with her, it would do no use to lie.
“Sekhenna, I recognize that name.”
Her heart skipped a beat.
“Are you the Fliss girl I’ve heard so much about?”
“I am curious what brought you to Godspine. Your family was close with many of the houses here. Do you not wish to appeal to them for aid?”
She offered a performative sigh and dropped her head. “Sire, it is truly a dire need. I thought with the recent happenings in the city such as the fire and the dragon attacks it would be best to leave the Companies to their own merits.”
Harama watched her, though she didn’t see him, she could feel his stare, as if the memory of her face was just beyond his grasp and he was searching for it within his mind.
“I see.” He plucked a grape from the silver tray, clinking it with his nails. “What provisions were you explicitly hoping for?”
She stammered. “Well, my lord, I was unsure I would be able to have this meeting with you.” Carefully she swung her legs from beneath her and out to the side. Leaning on one arm, she pulled her hair back with the other and looked up to him with glassy eyes. “We need tents, or lumber, anything we can use to reinforce our quarters or perhaps expand upon what we’ve already built.” She stammered, quivering her lip as she did so. “We are not all vagrants, and those of us who are will surely be discovered. We are a people down on our luck and if it isn’t a bother, an endorsement from the great King of Athella before he returns would surely allow us to procure the necessary supplies.”
Her stomach twisted with each word she spoke through pursed lips with a defeated lilt. Every step intentional.
The King bent his wet lips to a frown and waved a hand.
“Begone then.” He turned his head to the servants and guards who stood beside him. “I would like to speak to the lady alone.”
She glanced at her own guard, who quietly sighed and followed the help through a side door. When it had closed and the latch clicked, Harama sat forward and leaned against his knees.
“Do you have money, my dear?”
She shook her head. “Not much.”
Harama nodded and put his chin in his hand. “I suppose we could work out an arrangement of sorts, no? An agreement between leaders.”
“I am no leader, my lord.”
“But you are here on behalf of your people, are you not? Does that not make you a leader in your own right?”
She shook her head again.
“My lord, I do not have the qualities to make me a leader in any capacity. I am simply a woman who is pained at the hardship of her loved ones.”
“How much, would you say, you truly loved them?” The King asked, his glare at her chest evident.
“More than my own life.” She replied.
King Harama reclined in his throne. “I believe a deal can be arranged. I am looking for more hand servants, after all.”
Her gut twisted at the thought.
“I will do what is necessary, my lord. However, this is an urgent matter. Even now, there is a couple with a child who are sick and without a place to rest. Would there be any way, in your excellent grace, to provide at least some kind of bedding for us immediately so they and those who suffer similarly might have a place to lay their heads?”
The King paused once more for thought, and then raised his hand.
“Stand, young lady. Come to me.”
She obeyed, despite the prickling of her skin urging her not to do so.
As she approached, King Harama’s eyes bounced from her to the rafters above, where he’d surely kept guards hidden in the event she might attempt something unsavory. When she arrived before him, he held his hand up. She stopped.
“What is that unusual piece of jewelry you are wearing, young maiden?”
She lifted her gauntleted hand. “It is a family heirloom.” She looked deep into his eyes. “Something my mother used to wear, though I don’t know why. I lost her when I was young. My father provided it to me as a gift when I came of age.”
He raised an eyebrow and leaned close.
“I do not think so, but I admire your tenacity,” He whispered.
She continued staring, silently.
“I will grant your wish. We will provide what services will be necessary to you and your people in the Camps. In return you will turn over your piece of machinery to me, where it rightfully belongs.”
She took her free hand and pulled at the gauntlet. “I would love to, my lord, but unfortunately, it is affixed and cannot be removed. At least, not as of yet. If you are aware of a way to safely remove it, I would be happy to do so.” She lied again.
The King looked over the gauntlet and held out his own hand, waving for her to approach. “I will test this, it would be easy for you to lie to me as I’ve not seen such a piece before.”
She extended her arm and he wrapped her hand within his. For a moment, he looked deep into her with his sunken, wrinkled eyes. Then, he tugged.
The force of his pull jerked her forward, shocked that his gaunt frame could pull with such strength. He did so a few more times and when he was satisfied, he stopped.
“I see.” He cleared his throat and clapped his hands. “So be it. We will arrange a deal.”
The help, along with her guard returned from the side room and took their places as if they’d never left.
“I will see to it that we clean up The Camps for you, if you make a promise to me, Sekhenna Fliss.”
“When I have arranged to remove your family heirloom, you will answer my summons and will depart with it freely.”
She paused, aware of how open-ended he’d left the arrangement and more than a little surprised he’d agreed to help The Camps so easily.
“So be it, if that is what you require, my lord, I will obey with all I am able to.”
King Harama laughed aloud.
“That’s a good citizen.” Then, he leaned closer to whisper.
“Do not attempt to make a fool of me, Sekhenna. I will not tolerate the insult.”
She nodded. “Of course, sir.”
Harama waved his hand and turned to pluck a cup from the tray. “Begone now, Sekhenna. I will arrange to clean up the mess in the Camps immediately.”
She took a step back and felt her guard’s presence behind her.
“Thank you, my lord. You truly have no idea what this means to me, to all of us.”
He took a long sip and didn’t reply. Behind them, the grand doors creaked and the soldier from the entrance knocked.
“Time to go.”
She obeyed and followed him out with her companion. Neither of them spoke until the front door of the Embassy was many steps behind them, and then the guard stopped.
“You are clever, girl.”
She reached into her satchel and fished out a bag of scales, the same bag she’d pilfered from the merchant the previous day.
“Unfortunately, not clever enough. I will pay you sixty scales to go to The Camps. If anything happens that is not the King sending Company men to deliver resources, and if anyone is endangered, you find a woman named Dhama, and with her, get every single person you can out of there.”
The guard took the coins and raised an eyebrow.
“Are you so sure?” He asked. “I don’t know if this suspicion is a wise one.”
She rolled her eyes. “Believing everyone will hold up their end of the deal is as foolish as you can be.”
The guard nodded. “Understood.”
She held the bag of scales as he went to take it. Her gauntleted hand wrapped around the leather, her free hand reached to her hairline.
“Make no mistake.” She finished, pulling her hair away to reveal the tattoo beneath her ear. “If you attempt to double-cross me, it will be your undoing.”
The guards eyes widened as he saw her mark, and without another word, made his way away from her.