It was a magnificent morning. Amira leaned back into the deck chair allowing the warm salty wind to whip her honey brown hair into a hectic mass of wavy locks. Her eyes wandered over the dawn stained sails and the dozen or so red-capped turns that rested on the rim of the crows-nest. They would be striking land today; maybe even soon if the smoke-hazy horizon was anything to go by. It had been a week. Amira hated sailing, hated the sea. Her element may have been water but there was something about the salty liquid around her now that left her feeling dirty. She was of the mountain creeks and rivers, pristine and clear; solid and unmoving in winter but free and even unpredictable during warmer weather.
An unusual energetic vibration caused her to roll over and she saw a young man looking at her from where he’d perched himself on the railing. His deep blue eyes piercing and analysing.
‘Can I help you?’ Her tone was cautious. For the whole trip she’d made eye contact with him at least three times a day, clearly the man had something he needed to say to her. The only thing she liked in him was the feralness of restrained strength.
‘Yes…I mean no…I mean I think so.’
Amira flicked an eyebrow, ‘Why don’t you start with your name.’
He made a noise which could best be described as a nervous girly giggle, ‘Trevor Sandler’
‘Alright, Trevor, what’s on your mind?’
‘Are you…perhaps….. an Artisan?’
Amira stared at him blankly.
‘I mean…There’s something special about you and I…I’
‘What’s the matter?’ She moved to ease his unstable emotions, more to avoid him attracting the wrong sort of attention, ‘Be careful how you use that title would you… I wouldn’t trust this crew and certainly not this captain.’
‘I need your help.’
Sitting up to see him better she absent-mindedly tightened the shirt straps behind her back, ‘I’m not going to promise anything but explain to me how you think I can help you and I’ll let you know if I can or not.’
He moved forward faster than even Amira’s reflexes could catch to take up her hand, ‘Please. It’s my family. My son is gifted and my wife thinks that our baby girl is too. They’ve fled to the country for now but…’
‘It won’t protect them for long.’ She sighed.
‘No. I didn’t think it would.’ He turned his large green eyes out to the horizon in a silly attempt to hide the disappointment that had been obvious in his tone.
When the Pankhurst Division won the war ten years ago things changed. The ‘gifted’ were identified young and removed from their families for ‘schooling’; which essentially translated as indoctrination. They left the schools either broken or brainwashed.
Amira pulled her hands away from him and stood up, ‘I’m sorry’
‘You won’t help me?’ It was a pathetically dismal plea.
‘I can’t. I’m not an Artisan.’ At least not yet. ‘You won’t find any Artisans younger than thirty.’
Disappointment paled the intensity in his eyes.
‘What I can do…’ She paused for his reaction. ‘Once my mission in Reefside is complete… is send someone to collect your family.’
‘How can I help?’
‘Help?’ With raised eyebrows she looked down on where he was still kneeling.
He stood slowly, ‘That’s right. I have…contacts in Reefside, of various kinds of professions and not all of them legitimate if you catch the drift. I’m sure we can work something out.’
Amira had to re-appraise him, ‘That explains how a merchant could afford to buy passage on this particular vessel.’
He nodded, ‘I could say the same in return; you’re no Lady of the Courts.’
‘Thanks’ Amira walked to the side and peered over. In the east the sun was breaking through the clouds, it sent a blotchy reflection over the calm waters. He probably hadn’t said it as a compliment but for Amira is was; she detested the petty, twitchy childishness of the court ladies.
Five hours later Amira and Trevor stepped off the gang plank and onto the docks. Reefside was an ancient city of carved limestone and sandstone buildings. The city’s icons were the winged dolphin and hippocampus (as in half horse-half fish). Statues filled the court yards of kings, saints and legends but the animal icons were carved everywhere into the buildings, cream and gold walls and roofed with blue slate. Amira was forced to follow Trevor through the backstreets. The map she had been given must have been easily a century out of date as it only vaguely resembled what she was seeing. It took her the best part of an hour to find herself on it only learn that the dock where they’d been dropped off was on the opposite side of the harbour to where the map had suggested.
After a quick meal to help their stomachs settle back into a stable existence Amira found herself being led away from the water and into the darker depths of the city where the poverty hovels lay carved into a great cliff face. It was truly a warren but the living walls lent themselves to rich carvings, some had been ruined or destroyed by the wind over the many eons they’d been there but there was a pride in the energy, a resilience she couldn’t put her finger on and as she made eye contact with one person after another she recognised the wildness as the same as she found in Trevor’s. Despite the danger in the air she found herself relaxing.
‘Down this way.’ Trevor grabbed her hand and dragged her down a light filled corridor.
‘I thought we were underground?’ She asked as she adjusted her stride to match his while trying to shield her eyes.
She was pulled into the shadows of another corridor, ‘What’s the rush?’
‘I didn’t realise how late we are.’
‘Late for what?’
The answer was stolen from his lips as they practically fell into an open area. Light flooded into the courtyard. Dust and insects wafted on a draft and the two of them stared on as a lean female figure slowly stood up amongst the shadows of the opposite alley. Amira could feel the energy pulsating from her, an earthy coldness in her dark, half-obscured features. The two women sized each other up for an extended moment; Amira standing in the golden light and the other in the shadows with an amused smile on her face and a bloodied blade in her hand which she didn’t try to hide.
‘Well then,’ Her head turned enough for Amira to see the white eye and parallel scars that ran down the left side of her face.
Trevor looked from one to another and back again, ‘Ladies, if I may offer some introductions.’
Amira stared him down, ‘What?’
He stepped forward, ‘Lady Ureya may I introduce, Amira of the Hearthlands.’
Wiping the blade on the shirt of her victim, who had previously remained unseen in the bushes, Ureya replied, ‘I know who she is but why is she here?’
Amira felt annoyed that this stranger knew who she was.
Trevor seemed to be excited about the introductions, ‘I met her during the voyage. If I help her with her mission she’ll help me with my family.’
‘I see.’ With a flick of her wrist the blade vanished, ‘And what pray-tell is your mission Amira?’
‘A rogue Artisan, a healer, has turned deathdealer.’
‘Define Artisan.’ The woman said bluntly as she waved for the others to follow her inside.
‘A gifted individual who avoided the governmental snares and was appropriately trained.’
‘You hide your gifts well.’
‘As do you.’
Trevor missed a step, ‘Ureya? You’re one too.’
‘Of course… there are more here than the nobility have been led to believe.’ Ureya closed the door behind them and bolted it. She then looked Amira up and down, ‘You’re very calm for someone who just witnessed a murder.’
‘I’ve seen worse, though right now I’m trying hard to work out if you’re worth trusting or not.’
‘Fair call I suppose.’ Ureya left them standing in the entrance for a moment and headed deeper into the abode leaving Trevor to show their guest to the sitting area- a small area found under the kitchen by climbing down a ladder.
Amira analysed the décor, tapestries too rich for the hovel district of such a large city had been hung on the feature wall either side of the massive flat screen. Masonic symbols had been cunningly worked into the scenes and the borders; it took a trained eye to spot them. Most of the town had been decorated in whites, creams and various shades of blue. It felt awkward to be surrounded by greens and rich reds. A statuette carved of a black stone with silver veins sat on the coffee table. The plaque labelled it as The Hunt but the swirling form only vaguely resembled a cat at the run.
The sound of someone climbing onto the ladder caught her attention and a child’s feet came into view. The dark pantalets and grey skirt looked strange on a child until she turned to look at the guests. Her sullen expression and glacial eyes caught in Amira’s heart. Only one thing could do that to a child- rape. The girl of perhaps nine shuffled forward and handed Amira a change of clothes and a sealed letter to Trevor. Trevor turned around to read the note while Amira changed. The brown outfit was loose fitting but had ties on the sleeves and legs so it could be held in place. She turned in time to see Ureya drop down into the room with them.
‘I have black if you prefer but my legs are longer than yours’
‘Why am I changing at all?’
‘I would have thought it obvious. I can hardly take you out hunting in that embroidered cream court attire.’
‘Hunting? I’m not going hunting?’
‘Then why are you here? You were sent to deal with this Artisan weren’t you?’
Amira stumbled, ‘Well technically yes, but I don’t want to kill him.’
‘Want and need are two different things. Artisans are a special breed and for one to become a deathdealer is serious business. I think I know who you’re after…’ She flicked a glance at the grey skirt disappearing up the ladder again… ‘But I can’t take them on my own.’
Ureya paused halfway through her appraisal of Amira’s attire and how it fitted, ‘Yes, I believe there are three.’
Amira baulked, ‘I’m not a killer, you can’t expect me to follow you down that road.’
‘Not a killer? What are you then?’
‘I don’t have to answer that but I’m not a murderer.’
‘Here in Reefside the rules are a bit different. Murder means to kill without cause… we have a cause and they must be stopped. Dark Artisans can only be stopped one way.’
‘No.’ Amira crossed her arms, ‘They must be brought to justice alive, dead they pose us even more of a threat.’
‘I suppose that depends on the manner of their death. Weapons are behind the screen, choose your preference. You don’t WANT to kill that’s fine; if you can find a way to stop them to your satisfaction then you do so but don’t have your heart set on a happy ending to all of this. We will watch them for a while, formulate our plan and strike them hard, all at once in three days’ time.
She didn’t like the idea but she didn’t have another plan, didn’t know another way of completing her mission and had three days to find her alternative to killing THEM outright. The screen gave off an electric buzz as she slowly shifted it aside to reveal the hidden panel. Blades of various lengths were set out on a sort of magnetic holding device. Throwing knives set in a silk lined box, a set of star blades, hooks on chains and a meteor hammer. Selecting a black lacquered bow and a leather quiver of arrows for herself and the T hooked chain for Trevor, as per his request, she closed up behind her.
Together they set out well after dark. Ureya led them through the backstreets in a significant curve through the city to the temple district where the healers made their home. The sandstone here was rich cream with rusty coloured marbling, red clay tiles rooved the newer buildings. The district followed a stream through what would have once been a lush valley. Great trees still remained, looming overhead as the occasional dark mass and masking their passage from the numerous lofty towers of the temples. The night was warm and the humidity carried the scent of storms. Down in the valley they couldn’t see the ocean and had no way of knowing if the storm was headed their way or not.
Pausing at a dolphin fountain they waited for some sort of sign or movement. Ureya seemed to be waiting for someone and Amira filled the time practicing her water working skills.
‘You said you weren’t an Artisan.’ Trevor complained as she recreated patterns on the surface.
‘I’m not. I’m only level two and I’m only twenty one.’
‘You’re an idiot’ Ureya said quietly under her breath.
‘Levels have no meaning, everyone’s abilities are different’
‘Fair enough but without a levelling system how do students know they’ve improved?’
‘You’re a water worker, as you get stronger you can make a bigger splash- easy.’ Ureya smiled.
‘And what about you? What’s your skill?’
Trevor pulled gently on Amira’s sleeve and indicated for her to drop the subject. No chance.
‘What brought you to Reefside?’
‘Why can’t you just shut up?’
The abrupt shift in Ureya’s energetic feel made Amira worry. She saw a flicker of movement which must have been some sort of hand gesture as Trevor moved low and slow towards the alley beside an inn. She made to follow but Ureya held her down with a hand on her shoulder,
‘Wait for fifteen more seconds then follow him. I’m going left down that way,’ Ureya chin pointed down the main street.
‘And what exactly am I looking for?’
A half smile made the scars of Ureya’s face contort unnaturally, ‘I think you heard me. There’s a hunters moon tonight and we aren’t the only predators on the street it seems.’
Amira stood up anyway, ‘I’m going home then.’
‘My dear child, as if that is going to change anything at this point.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean.’
‘Run along as directed please.’
‘Not until you answer my question.’
‘You’re the bait.’
Amira didn’t hang around to ask more questions. She pelted down the alley as directed but the first chance she found she turned off it. Choosing turns and stairs that would take her down the side of the valley towards the creek she focused her attention on moving as quietly as possible. Water was now her only friend in this remote, unknown place. The world was shades of black and grey as moonlight stole the remnants of colour from her surrounds. A fragrant scent caused her to pause at someone’s garden gate. There was something inviting about it, something safe. A pond a short way inside provided the needed resources to mess with the lock and she slid inside. Using the water a second time to silently relock the gate behind her she looked around for a good hiding place.
Ureya prowled along the rooftops. This district was her favourite playground, she knew it extremely well from her studies here and the uneven rooftops forced her to work harder to remain silent and unseen. That foolish girl should have been better trained; she was everything Ureya had come to detest about the Artisan breed and their strict training program. They really shouldn’t send out paper pushing rookies to do the work of an assassin. They hadn’t even taught her how to properly hide her energy, she leaked a trail any well trained dog could follow and her playing like that in a public place was just plain stupid. Perching for a moment to view down the valley Ureya waited for her prey to head for water.
Trevor moved invisibly through the squeezes between buildings. He was her dog, able to sniff out those with the gift. The more they used it the stronger their scent became. He paused as the squeeze met an alley way and a strong scent, too peppery to be of water alignment. Using a drainpipe he climbed up to the building’s smoke stack and began signalling Ureya that they weren’t alone.
Ureya had not expected company to come tonight. This was about spreading the girls energy signature throughout the district, again tomorrow and on the next night her victim should have come out to play. She ran through the plan, the procedure and everything she knew about her mark. She tried to work out why he’d changed his own game plan. Dropping from her perch into the garden beds below she silently moved to find Trevor. The signal had told her where he was headed but chances were good that she’d beat him to it, if she threw caution to the winds and disregarded her silence. A distant rumble of thunder made her decision for her. With a soft shing she drew her favourite blade leaned forward and leapt into a speedy but endurable pace through the streets.
From her hiding place Amira used a window to see a reflection of the street. In it she saw the sky light up as the storm rolled in off the ocean. Half an hour she told herself, half an hour tops and things would get very wet. If she could last that long she would be fine. The pattering of feet on stones made her shrink back deeper into the bushes but it was overhead that she saw the person fly by. Catching her own breath she froze as the pattering slowed and fell silent. She sensed that whoever they were they were doubling back. They couldn’t have seen her but there were other senses an energy worker could rely on more.
A flash of lightning revealed him, cold eyed and standing in snake stance on the tiled roof, peering down into the garden, reaching in energetically, searching. He seemed more interested in the gate, in the lock, than anything and as the thunder rolled around them he was gone again. Still not confidant enough to breathe Amira tried to work it out. Energy workers were rare if not extinct now. How did one city accumulate so many and did this Rogue Artisan have something to do with it. The only Artisans accepted by society were the healers, surely any others were just fair game to the local population. Ironically her mind shifted to the memory of that haunted little girl and she realised that perhaps they were fair game in this city after all, that they’d had to band together to survive.
Steel on steel made her flinch and she realised that she had stopped paying attention. There was someone at the gate, it rattled roughly again and the sound sent the rattle down her own spine. She closed her eyes, calmed her breathing and focused on the coming storm. Whoever they were they didn’t move too quietly so she doubted they were the man from the roof. She fought her instinct to look. The broken gate fell to the cobbles with a crash and she leapt out of her skin with a squeak. The person in the garden flinched worse than she did and hurried to escape the scene as a light switched on overhead.