Authors: C. M. Hayden
The Arclight Saga
Copyright © 2016 by C.M. Hayden.
All rights reserved.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the author is illegal, and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.
The doctor tapped his fingers on the table separating him and his patient. “The nurses say you haven’t been eating.”
“I don’t eat,” the man said as he shifted in his chair.
“Is that a fact?” The doctor dipped his pen in an inkwell and scribbled as he spoke. “You’ll be pleased to know we sent a picture of you to the Magisterium. Tell me why—”
“I don’t believe you.”
“—tell me why nobody there recognizes you.”
“It’s been a long time,” the man said.
The doctor removed a silver coin from his pocket and placed it on the table. “You say you’re a magister. If that’s the case, turn this into something spectacular for me. Do that and you can go.” The doctor nudged it closer with his pen. “Well?”
The man held his hand over the coin and tried to get the metal to change form. Nothing happened. “It’s these drugs you’ve got me on. I can’t think clearly.”
The doctor put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “It’s going to take time to clear your mind of these delusions. A long time. But don’t be afraid, I’m here to help.”
The Back-Alley Mansion
“Could you slow down?” Taro shouted ahead to his little sister.
Nima vaulted over a wooden crate and paused to let him catch up. “Sorry.”
Taro knelt and tightened the leather laces of his prosthetic leg. Buckles and straps kept the wood attached to his ankle. Usually he could keep up with Nima, but today she was especially excited.
When Taro was done he tucked the package he’d been carrying under his arm and they continued to the back of the alleyway.
“How much did he promise?” Nima asked.
“He didn’t say.”
“Didn’t say? Always settle on a price, first Taro. You know that.”
“He’s got money and he’s a friend of Dad's. He's got no reason to screw us.”
Nima pulled Taro by the back of the shirt. “Do you want Dad to find out about this?”
“You think he doesn’t already know? He’s sick, not stupid.”
Nima conceded the point. “What’s this guy’s name, anyway?”
Victor Mathan’s mansion was one of the least traveled places in Ashwick. Though he was the richest man in town, and most everyone knew his name, few had actually met him.
The end of the alleyway was falling apart. Crows picked at overturned trash bins, and bricks crumbled beneath rusted iron gargoyles. All of the doors were boarded up, except for one with no knob and no hinges. It looked as if it was painted into the wall.
Taro rapped on it: two short knocks and a thump. The edges connecting the door to the wall disappeared and it creaked open. Passing the post was like stepping into another world. The floors were polished mahogany, clear as glass, and blue tasseled rug stretched from the door and up a grand staircase that branched off into the wings of the mansion.
A man came from the adjacent room as Taro and Nima were scraping the mud off their boots.
“Your business?” the man croaked.
“My name’s Taro—”
“You have it then?” The man held out his hand.
Taro squeezed the package. “Not ‘till I see him.”
The man raised one of his bushy eyebrows and grumbled. “Then you will leave at once.”
“Now Mort, that’s no way to treat our guests,” an older man called from the top of the stairs. He was plump, with balding, gray hair and a cigar in his mouth that looked like a permanent feature of his face. He checked his pocket watch and tucked it into his vest. “Bring some tea, please. Double sweet, splash of whiskey. Do you two want anything?”
Taro and Nima shook their heads.
“Good. That’s the right answer. Three things you’ve got to learn in this business. Number one: don't drink anything anyone gives you. But you seem to be struggling with number two: never be late. What kept you?”
“The warders asked us some questions,” Taro said. “They’re all over the shop.”
“You were careful?”
“We left clean.” Taro handed the package to Mathan, who cut the twine with a letter opener.
Mort drudged in a few moments later carrying a tray of tea and Celosan whiskey. Mathan sipped one of the cups without taking the cigar out of his mouth. “Excellent work. I knew you wouldn’t let me down. This is one of the finest examples of early Magisterium insc—“
“If it’s all the same to you, sir, we’d like to be paid and be on our way. The less we know, the better,” Taro said.
Mathan grabbed a satchel from his belt and picked through the coins inside. “I see you already know the third rule by heart. Very well, how much did we agree on?”
“Ten crowns,” Nima blurted out.
“Did we agree on ten? Seems a bit steep.”
Taro shoved Nima. “No sir, we didn’t agree on a price. But... honestly, our family does need the money.”
Mathan fished through the bag. “Honesty won’t get you very far in this business, lad. Fortunately for you, it still holds some sway with me. Here are twenty crowns.”
“Twenty?!” Nima said.
“Each,” Mathan added.
“What’s the catch?” Taro said, as Mathan dropped the bag into his hand. The weight felt like it would take his arm off.
“No catch,” Mathan said. “Just another job. You both look like fine, upstart children. Those Helian slum-kids attract too much attention, but you’re clean, you’re well-spoken. Proper Endrans.”
“Another job?” Nima said excitedly.
“A bit more long-term than the last, but I’ll be sure to compensate you for the extra hassle.”
Taro bit his lip. “I don’t know. This was just supposed to be a one-time thing.”
“Ah.” Mathan stirred some more of the strong-smelling whiskey into his tea. “I understand, of course. But... how fares your father? Your mother? Forty crowns is a good start, no doubt, but bills do rack up, I’m sure you’ve learned.”
“We appreciate it, sir, but it’s just not for us. We needed a little help, and we’ve got it.”
Nima shook the bag of coins. “Are you crazy?”
Mathan clapped his hands and Mort appeared once again, this time holding a ratty bit of folded parchment. He handed it to Taro. “In case you change your mind.”
“Paper?” Taro said.
“One of my latest acquisitions. Two-way parchment. Its twin is downstairs in my study. Should you reconsider, simply write on the parchment and I shall see it.”
Taro folded the parchment and stuffed it into his pocket. “We’ll keep you in mind.”
“Send my best wishes to your parents.”
Taro knew that as soon as they were back outside, the arguing would begin. He tried to keep ahead of Nima, but anger fueled her speed.
“Oh, no, not this time,” she said. “You’re not getting away.”
“Can we please not do this?”
Taro ran so quickly that his leg ached even more than usual. Realizing that keeping away from her was impossible, he sat down and unstrapped his prosthetic to relieve the pressure.
Nima winced. Taro knew it bothered her to see him like this.
“You know we need that money,” she said, despite hardly being able to look at him.
“We’ll be fine for a while.”
“A while. And after that?”
“Hopefully Mom and Dad’ll be better by then.”
“What if they don’t get better?” Nima choked on her words. It’d been over two months, and this was the first time they’d spoken about the possibility of their parents not getting through their illness.
Taro knelt beside Nima and hugged her around her shoulder. “Listen, that isn’t something you need to worry about.”
“You can’t do it on your own,” Nima said.
“’course I can’t, that’s why I have you. But I shouldn’t have brought you along on this. It’s not very big-brotherly of me.”
“Mr. Mathan seems nice.”
Taro strapped his prosthetic back on. “Bad men with smiles are the most dangerous kind.”
“What do you mean?”
“Back when I used to work for Mr. Boors he used to tell me to stay away from Mathan no matter how desperate I got. If Boors is scared of him, there’s got to be a reason.”
After stopping by the marketplace and picking up an entire leg of lamb and as many vegetables as they could haul, they returned to their home on Walder’s Lane. Their house was a thin cross-section of a much larger structure; fourteen homes stretched out in both directions, each with the same brown brick façade and stoop that lead to a narrow door.
Up the stairs, past piles of wooden toys, they were finally home. Their brothers Enam and Decker ran to the door to meet them. Taro swiped Decker up with one arm and Enam with the other.
“Shouldn’t you two be gettin’ ready for bed?” he said, kissing them both on the forehead.
“We’re hungry,” Decker, the older of the two, said.
“Yeah, we’re hungry.”
“Tell you what, help your sis get the food to the pantry and we’ll get something going. Wash your hands first.”
The door on the other side of the living room creaked open. Taro’s mother stood leaning against the frame, draped in a tattered sundress with white lilies on it. Her arms were thin and her veins dark. She and Taro met half-way into a hug.
“Your father was about to send a search party after you.”
Taro was happy to see she was smiling. “You shouldn’t be on your feet.”
“Nonsense.” She rested against a chair and looked around at the mess in the living room. Toys and trash littered the floor, the pictures and carved figurines above the fireplace were caked in dust, and the hearthstones were loose and cracked. A year ago, his mom wouldn’t have been able to stand the sight of even a single item out of place, but as the sickness took her, she’d become too weak to keep up with anything.
She glanced through the kitchen entrance at the twins picking through the bags of onions and bell peppers. “Looks like you got plenty.”
Taro beamed. “There’s enough left for your medicine. The alchemist was closed, but I’ll pick some up first thing in the morning.”
His mom gave him a warm smile. The kind of smile he hadn’t seen in weeks. “You’ve really come through for us. You must be working hard.” She spoke the next few words softly, as if trying to avoid an outright accusation. “Good, honest work, I’m sure.”
“It’s just a few odd jobs for—”
Before Taro could finish, his father’s voice called from the bed. “You going to lie to your own mother?"
“Hush,” his mom said.
Taro’s father sat up and wheezed. “I will not ‘hush.’ Our son’s standing right there about to lie to your face and you’re all smiles.”
Taro approached his bedside.
“Boy, this family’s been a lot of things, but we ain’t never been thieves.”
“I’m no thief.”
“Oh? They callin' it something else these days?” His dad pointed at the suit of armor hanging on the wall. On the center was the Endran crest: a tower beneath the sun. “Do you know what that suit stands for?”
“Duty and service,” Taro said, a phrase he’d repeated many times.
Taro wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “What do you want me to do?”
“Do? I suppose I don’t have any right to criticize you while I’m not working myself. You sick of seeing me bed-ridden? Well, I’m sick of it too. I may not be able to stand for long, my sight may be going, maybe... maybe my mind’s going too, but I’ll be damned if my son’s going to come home acting like he’s doing the town some kind of civic service. A man’s got to take care of his family, even if it means doing something ugly. But that doesn’t mean we come home lookin' like we’re proud of it.”
Taro had to hold his breath to keep from screaming. By the time he’d finally sorted out his thoughts, Nima was rushing past him.
“Don't talk to Taro like that!”
“Back with your brothers, little girl. This doesn’t concern you.”
“The hell it doesn’t. Me and Taro have been working together. So anything you have to say to him, you gotta say to me.”
Taro gently grabbed Nima’s shoulder. “It’s just the sickness messing with his head.”
Nima pulled away. “You’re still defending him?”
“Please, don’t,” Taro said softly.
Nima scrunched her face and glared at Taro, then at her father. “I hate you.”
Nima stormed out. Taro started to follow, but his mother stopped him. “Let her be.”
They left without another word to Taro’s father, and shut the door.
An hour later, the haze of anger had lifted. Taro sat elbows-deep in a wash-bucket trying to get the gunk out of an enormous cast iron pot.
Decker and Enam flicked soapy water at him. “I’m going to get you two. Mom, stop them,” Taro said.
His mom coughed out a laugh. “Not my fault you don’t know how to dodge.” She faced Nima’s room and tried to holler, but it came out a squeak. “Nima! Your food’s going to be stone cold.”
There was no answer.
“I’ll get her.” Taro rapped on her door. “Sis? You awake?”
Again, no answer.
He pushed the door open. The room was dark, but he could make out Nima’s tiny outline on the bed, covered in blankets.
“You really should eat.”
Taro poked the blankets until he realized that Nima was not there. When he pulled them up, there were only pillows underneath.
At first, he didn’t know what to do. He had no idea where she would run off to, until he saw a folded piece of parchment on her bedside table. He checked his pockets for the paper Mathan gave him. Nothing. She must’ve swiped it.
He unfolded the parchment. In Nima’s neat, straight handwriting were the words:
Ready now. Where? How much?
And below, in fancy penmanship:
One thousand crowns. Craiven & Boors. One hour. Don’t be seen.