I’ve been battling about a year’s worth of depression by now so please forgive my long silence. When you’re trying to keep your head above water it’s hard to be creative. The good news is that I think it’s coming back. Toymaker has been in the works for me so long that it’s a complicated dance to re-enter, but I am making every effort to try.
In the meantime, here’s a short fiction piece I wrote yesterday, taking place in the sea-side city of Rimsea. Arkady is new on the field of characters and I’m still figuring her out, as well as the whole story of Rimsea itself, but that’s what makes it all so exciting.
Normally I would post this as a reward tier, but I’ve been absent so long I want you all to have something to look at.
Toymaker is coming soon, I promise.
A wind swept out of the south, bringing with it the promise of storms.
On the highest floor of the tallest minaret this side of the Steep Arkady Gilraeth crouched in the window. The red sash that she used to cover her mouth hung down, loose around her neck. She shifted, minute recalibrations of weight that allowed her to maintain position. Somewhere out there, in the darkened city, others such as she began their nightly preparations for mischief.
The pale woman frowned, and the expression pulled stark freckles across her face. That is, the skin beneath her face.
Arkady was Rimsean by birth, but a foreigner by blood. She reached up and flicked the mask-face down over her eyes. The static features of a white lion, rendered in polished porcelain, snarled out at still-sleeping Underhill.
Far away, above the Steep and in Rimsean proper, a bell began to peal. The next tower took it up, this one with a deeper voice than the first. Soon all the bells in the city were ringing, a music unlike any other.
The Quiet had begun.
Arkady spun, wisps of crimpy, orange hair flying out from beneath her hood. She dove, out over open air. Air rushed by her as she fell. That was a better song; silence born from wind.
In those moments Arkady felt free. She reached out her arms on either side of her, barely aware of the tower whipping by. There was nothing like it.
With a single, fluid motion she uncoiled the rope at her side and threw her grappling hook. The rope had been made special, and imbued with enchantments on a regular schedule. It had never failed her yet.
One hand held the rope, even though the other end was securely fastened to a wide leather belt around her waist. Dimly, she heard the ka-chunk of the hook’s teeth as they made purchase. The length ran out, away from her, and Arkady put both hands on the rope now. Her whole body tensed.
The rope went taut and she grinned as the resulting snap reverberated throughout her body. Arkady turned and swung, holding her knees close to her body, leading with her feet. Her back arched as she reached the top of the rope’s scythe. A deft tug released the hook’s teeth from its perch, but the momentum from the swing was still sending her up. Another toss, this one aimed perfectly as well, and the hook caught the edge of a roof. She went down again, powerful arms moving in just the right way to shift her weight and get the most out of each arc.
In this way she crossed Underhill, swinging up and down, only occasionally having to push herself off of buildings or chimneys to get the power she needed. Only leather and linen hissed as she moved. For one such as her, silence and mobility were key.
Arkady hit the Steep at top speed. At the top of her arc off the last minaret she wheeled her arms, holding her hands out. The wall that divided Underhill from Rimsea was peppered with handholds–not one of the sandstone bricks had been laid even, but it was not for those that she aimed for this time. Other nights, nights when she felt like showing off, or she needed that several second advantage, that was when she would take the risk. But not today. She landed on one of many drain pipes sticking out of the Steep and kept running. Compared to flying it was nothing, but speed was of the essence.
By the time Arkady reached the top of the Steep, sweat beaded on her brow and ran into her eyes. She blinked hard. Perched on the wall she did a quick sweep, counting the stiltwalkers in sight and the Annies who walked abroad with their crimson lanterns. It would not do to be caught by either. Not just in general, but especially now.
In the city of Rimsea the Quiet–rang twice a day, once at sunrise and again at sunset–was the hour of curfew. No business could take place and no one but the Annies were allowed out on the streets. So, naturally, it was time for the men and women of Underhill to do their work. Here, time did not exist. Secrets could be spoken, pacts could be sworn, lives could end.
Arkady flexed her fingers, trying to get the ache of climbing out of them. Yes, the Quiet was a time unto itself, whole and complete. And, to people like her, full of fools.
One glance was all she needed and then she was off again, across the rooftops on foot now. She scaled towers and domes with practiced ease, far more at home with seeing the city from the vantage point of a bird than from the streets below.
At last she reached her target. By now the second set of bells had rung, signaling the curfew’s end. She had to move quieter, slower. Even that was a test of skill that she did not mind, though, and as she padded unseen across balconies with people just inside, the red-head grinned to herself.
The house in question sprawled like a sumptuous whore amongst the other buildings, its turrets and gardens as numerous as its many ornate archways and chuckling fountains. It spoke of wealth and taste, but not necessarily of excess. Most fine estates built up, seeking the ever-present sun, but this one had built out, carving for itself a niche of unique beauty in a city that stretched constantly upward. The sides of the house gleamed, as pale as the moon. Frescos covered certain walls, carrying the play of live greenery onto stone.
Arkady swung herself over the spiked outer wall and into the garden. She landed with a soft hush and stopped, breathing hard.
To her left ran a long pool, bordered by a blue mosaic with white stripes, to the front was a shaded patio. Carefully flitting from shadow to shadow Arkady made her way inside.
Strange…there should be guards all over the place. Her slippered feet made absolutely no noise on the marble tiles. She fletched herself into corners, always keeping a wall or furniture between her and the rest of the room.
At the top of the stairs she paused, holding her breath. Something stirred nearby. Not a soldier, certainly no Annie. Akady nudged her forearm against her body and a blade fell into her palm. She gripped the leather-wrapped handle, eyes narrowing. So slowly that the time spent moving felt like it exposed her more than her actual position, Arkady leaned forward and peered around the corner.
There, lounging in front of the doorway to her mark’s room, lay an enormous black panther. His sides rose and fell evenly, peacefully asleep.
Arkady leaned her head back against the wall and cursed silently. Something made her cock her head. She strained her ears and then sighed heavily, biting her lower lip to keep from huffing out loud.
If there was one tenant she had learned in all her training, it was patience. Patience she had in abundance, but she couldn’t wait here.
On silent feet she made her way back down the stairs and out into a side garden. Then, being careful to time her toss of the hook with the rhythmic creaking of the bed just inside, she hoisted herself up onto the balcony and quickly scrambled into position on the roof. Arkady had just enough of a glimpse inside on her way up to map out the room in her head. She hid on the eave above the balcony, flattening herself so as to be less noticeable.
The room would be round, with several hanging curtains to obscure the bed. From the sound of things, her mark was…enjoying herself. Clearly indulging in some forbidden carnal pleasure with her mistress instead of patrolling the halls like a good little pet.
Arkady frowned. At least she couldn’t see them from her vantage point. Hardly a blessing, but thank Moira they were quiet about it.
She waited for what felt like hours, while all the adrenaline went out of her and stiffness crept in. On a rotating basis she flexed each muscle group, trying to keep herself alert as well as limber.
Finally, the noises from the room below shifted to the heavy breathing of two people drifting off to sleep. Heaving herself up, Arkady stopped cold when she felt the icy touch of steel on the back of her neck.
“Turn around, slowly.”
“Oh fer fuck’s sake,” she hissed, but did as she was told. The moment she did the one sight an assassin never hopes to see sent shivers down her spine.
Standing above her was a dark-skinned woman of petite stature, yet commanding presence. The wind off the sea tousled her raven hair. She looked into Arkady’s green eyes with a gaze like flint. And she had no face.
“Oh fuck,” Arkady said again. “A fucking Faceless.”
Rimseans feared few things in life. The storms, the Citta Rozans, and the Faceless. Everyone in Rimsea had a face, except those few who were insane enough to go without them. Outsiders called them “masks”, but the people in Rimsea knew the truth. Your mask was your face, and you wouldn’t be caught dead without it. To do so would be…beyond repulsive. Hideously ugly. Disgusting.
Arkady couldn’t afford to look away. Dimly, she wondered if her mark would be maskless when she sank her blade into the woman’s chest.
“Why are you here?” the Faceless demanded. A necklace with a crescent moon on it gleamed at her throat.
“I have a job to do, what do ye think?” Arkady spat back in her thick, northern Wharite accent. It wasn’t local, but it was the way her parents had spoken and she was stuck with it. “I’ve been paid a fair price to get rid of the courtesan’s bodyguard. Word is the crazy bitch broke some Pasha’s nose when he didn’t pay on time–”
The Faceless cut her off, the dagger pressed on Arkady’s chin. “I don’t care. My job is with the lady of the house.”
Arkady couldn’t help a scoff. In spite of the danger she felt the whipcrack of sarcasm enter her voice. “Oh tha’s just grand, isn’t it? I get the guard, you get the lady. Next thing you know it’s all over town and a lover’s suicide besides! Don’t you have any sense of class? Go find yer own roof to haunt and stay outta my way–I was here first.”
High above them clouds rolled across the moon. A sliver of silver light swept across the tiled roof, illuminating a shade of darker black on the nearest spire. White teeth flashed on a dark face. “So nice of you to notice,” purred a man’s pleasant tenor. He dropped down, bell sleeves billowing.
At once the Faceless curled her mouth in a silent snarl. “Thessaly Darkspring, you cheating bastard. I thought we had an agreement. No overlap on contracts.” She flicked her wrist and a second dagger fell into her free hand.
Thessaly shrugged eloquently. A sweep of pure white hair fell over his shoulders and his full, black mask gave the impression of a high-cheekboned face and a satisfied smirk. Or perhaps that was a trick of the light. “And I’ve been hired by a rival Pasha to make sure the lady comes to no harm at all, Kiraz.” He snapped his fingers and blue globes of foxfire appeared over his head. The cerulean tinge made the fire look cold, but Arkady had no doubt that it could burn her just the same. “So, it seems we are at an impass.”
“You…you’ve got to be kidding me,” Arkady gaped. “Three contracts–all fer different things–on the same house? On the same night?”
Kiraz–the Faceless–did not take her eyes off Thessaly. “It must be true. Hmph, inconvenient.”
“Isn’t there a law against usin’ magic against other folks?” Arkady asked, trying slowly to get into a better position so she was at less of a disadvantage.
“That’s Tamric law, I’m afraid.” Thessaly shrugged again. Oh, he sounded so smug! “And who cares what Rimsea says? I was hired for one purpose, and to that end I am allowed to do as I see fit.”
Kiraz grimaced. Arkady could tell they were thinking the same thing: neither of them could cross a mage and expect to win.
“Bow out gracefully,” he continued. “Tell your employers this house is too well-protected. You’ve tried, you’ll lose no face–pardon the expression, no offense meant.”
“None taken,” Kiraz said, tightly. The muscles on her jaw twitched. “I suppose the only one of us who gets anything tonight is you, stranger,” she added, glancing at Arkady.
The assassin pointed to herself, incredulous. “Me? Ye must be mad. I’m not goin’ after the guard if I know this fucker’s hanging about on the roof. How–” Here she turned and regarded Thessaly with as much pomp as she could muster, given that they had to be quiet, or else risk waking the entire estate. “How on earth am I supposed work now? I can’t just drop in, stab the bitch and be done with it. It’s not classy…it’s not right.”
Kiraz rolled her eyes. “For Vitas’ sake, it doesn’t have to be classy, it just has to be done.”
“I can’t just drop in and leave blood everywhere like I’m some kind of ammature–”
“Ladies, ladies, please.” Thessaly strode closer, one hand still up and ready to rain thaumaturgic foxfire down on them. “There’s no need to argue. Move on, yes? Live to fight another day and, ah, all that?”
Arkady could have bitten him. Anything to take the sting of pride out of his voice. In the end, both women acquiesced. How could they not? You don’t bring a knife if the other person has a bow, and you certainly don’t attempt to win against a mage with only cold steel in your hands. Besides, she’d seen the tell-tale shimmer of protection magic around him. Any weapon she tried to throw might turn around and come back at her, and–while she knew she was willful–Arkady wasn’t stupid.
They both left, skimming across the rooftops in opposite directions. Kiraz had insisted and Arkady was only too happy to oblige. True to his word, Thessaly did not fire on their backs. He allowed them to leave unmolested.
After they were gone he took Arkady’s spot on the eave above the balcony. “All’s well, my lady,” he said.
“Thank you, Thessaly,” came a soft, feminine voice from below. “Do you think they’ll be back?”
“Tonight, no.” He stretched and flexed his fingers. “Another time? Oh, certainly.”
A soft sigh. “I’m counting on you.”
The mage scanned the city’s varied horizon, only just able to make out the dim silhouette of Arkady as she landed on a roofline some several hundred yards away. “A new player enters the game, hm? Well, we’ll just see what you do.”
We’ll just see, indeed.