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City of Bridges

By A A Jones All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Fantasy

Chapter One

Leonie waited silently, blending into the shadows with her fine layer of glossy, black fur and dark clothing. Her view encompassed the palace, built out of locally quarried rock over two hundred years ago. Most of the walls were nondescript; the windows on the upper levels were blocked up soon after Lord Zander’s mysterious arrival.

From her vantage point on the rooftop of a large warehouse in Portside, she looked north and east across the harbour and the sprawling city of Delta. It had taken her little time to get over here using the many bridges, which linked the islands making up the bulk of the city. She did not visit Portside often. It was too open, too clean and the streets too well lit, unlike the shadowy backstreets of Dockside; her stomping grounds on the east side.

Strolling through the plaza, Leonie heard many travellers comment on how picturesque the city was as they lounged around on the seats. Some even compared it to the ancient and glorious city of Reenat, the capital of Athglenn.

Her opinion was different. True, Delta looked beautiful, but beneath the façade was a cesspool of corruption. Most street corners had spies; some worked for Lord Zander, some for various religious sects who constantly vied for dominance and recognition within the palace; others were out for whatever information they could sell to anyone with enough gold to fill their pockets.

But then again, as a crossbreed, and a thief at that, she saw the seedier side of the city. Her mixed heritage – part human, part Rrell – brought disdain and ridicule from the majority of the citizens. As her tail swished in agitation, she rhythmically balled then flexed her fingers.

Compared with the humans who dominated this land, the feline Rrells had faster reflexes and better perception. Leonie received the best of both races, which she constantly put to good use in the best possible way – her continued survival. Her slight build caused some people to assume she was weak, but rippling muscle and sinew, combined with her lightning reflexes, were enough to change anyone’s point of view.

Her gaze returned to the palace which had intrigued her most of her life. She had marginal success in finding information on how to get in and around the place if such an opportunity should eventuate.

Near the base of the outer western wall stood the Eternal Gardens, established in remembrance for those who had perished in the blaze which destroyed one of the finest temples of the city; the Temple of Eternity.

Leonie shivered. A feeling of cold despair washed over her at the thought of the children and women who perished. Her mother being one of them. Her pointed ears sagged and her tail went limp. Leaning against a dilapidated chimney, she took a moment to calm herself and restore her poise. It was dangerous enough travelling the rooves at night, let alone when losing concentration.

There was a large obelisk in the centre dedicated to the lost souls in the blaze. As Leonie watched, the crystal at the peak of the obelisk began to glow with a magical aura. She wondered why? There were other obelisks scattered around the city, and from time to time she witnessed the same thing. She had come to realise nobody else could detect this power. Her singular ability to detect the aura of magic had saved her from harm many times.

Furtive movement distracted Leonie’s contemplation of the obelisk. Two dark figures, heading towards the waterfront, made their way along the tiled rooftops of the adjoining buildings to her left. She utilised the rooftops frequently, but humans? Never! For the most part, they normally lacked ability to do it safely, especially on a damp and overcast night like tonight.

Jade always warned that curiosity was her biggest weakness. She had to agree, for now the question of who this pair were and what were they up to consumed her. Leonie considered the possibility of ring-ins, not true members of the Takers. No other thief in the city matched her skill, but these two showed remarkable speed and agility.

I need answers. The palace had been there for over a century; it could wait another night. Swiftly paralleling their course, she kept one street between them, her padded paws making little noise on the slate tiles. What are they doing? The figures stealthy moved with clear purpose, constantly looking down to the street. Who or what would warrant such scrutiny from these two? She had to know.

Dropping lithely onto a balcony, Leonie gathered herself before the next drop to street level. Once on the ground she crossed the lane, silently melding with the shadows along the wall of the same building as the would-be burglars, using the eaves as cover.

A few strides in front of her, a door opened, casting a shaft of light across the cobblestones. Too close to evade, she passed the door in a flash, hoping she would be unnoticed in her dark, close-fitting attire. A noisome odour assailed her as she passed, her whiskers quivering in recognition.

Dogs!

No sooner had the thought formed when two small terriers darted out, setting up a constant yapping. The noise they made belied their pathetically small stature. These dogs were no physical threat, but could alert others to her presence. Picking up speed, she ran on all four paws down a side alley, heading for the smelliest pile of refuse she could find hoping they’d lose her scent. Sure enough, within moments, the racket faded as the dogs found something more appealing. Now she could concentrate to determine the exact whereabouts of the strangers.

Pausing at the alley’s exit, she carefully looked around. The street ended at the wharf where a huge ship had docked. She recalled seeing it arrive earlier, and thought it unusual for a ship to arrive so late in the evening. A man strode down the centre of the street carrying a heavy satchel over one shoulder. He looked alert and, by his swagger, confident, but he appeared totally unaware of the attention he was receiving.

His dark clothing and small cape were of no significance, but the twin plumes jutting from his hat marked him as a courier. By royal decree, anyone interfering with their passage was liable for severe punishment. Walking down the centre of the road, he was still about twenty paces away but moving closer.

Leonie clung to the shadows. Judging from the occasional creaking above, the spies must be very close. The man’s lack of awareness amazed her. Humans are so deaf.

“Psst. You’re in danger.” She pointed up. “Move to the side.”

The man tensed and looked around, his gaze locking onto her. Stepping away, his hand rested on his pommel of his sword.

At the same time, a dark shape slid down a rope four paces to Leonie’s left. Except for a small area for the eyes, the figure was covered from head to foot in a dark grey close-fitting suit of leather.

Drawing his short sword in one fluid motion, the courier leapt back. There was a faint hiss. Something small struck the ground near where he’d been standing moments before.

Darts? Leonie’s ears flattened. They’re assassins!

The assassin on the ground moved swiftly, drawing a blowpipe as Leonie crept up behind him. He’d finished loading and was raising the pipe to his lips when a sudden yapping nearby caused everyone to jump.

The assassin balked and turned, suddenly aware of Leonie’s presence. His eyes widened in surprise. He raised an arm to fend off her swipe. The impact of her strike knocked the blowpipe from his grasp as her claws lacerated his wrist. Recovering quickly, he manoeuvred to give himself room, drawing a dagger with his left hand. The assassin whipped his arm out, flicking it directly at her.

Leonie immediately saw its dull glow. Power! She leapt straight up, twisting frantically. The dagger embedded itself in her calf. Screeching in pain, she spun her body in mid-air, kicked off the wall and flung herself at him. Clawed rage descended.

Fear etched the face of her attacker; his eyes widened and mouthed opened in shock. He uttered a cry, but in a foreign language. Quick on his feet, he dived to the side but slipped on the wet flagstones, distracted by the return of the yapping dogs.

The courier reached in and thrust his sword between the writhing frenzy of dogs and man. The assassin groaned as the blade penetrated armour and ribs.

Leonie landed awkwardly on the other side of the dead assassin. “Too bad you missed the dogs.” She grimaced as she pulled the dagger from her calf.

A few paces away the courier suddenly stiffened and fell to the cobbled street. Ignoring the blood running down her leg, Leonie jumped to his side and frantically dragged him under the cover of an awning. From his reaction to the dart, it was obviously a fast-acting poison. She hoped the dagger in her leg hadn’t been coated with it as well.

The courier’s body convulsed. He tried to say something, making a feeble attempt to pass his satchel, but his lungs seemed paralysed. A message from the courier entered her head.

Take to Qelay. Styx. Hrolta-- The thought hit her mind as his body spasmed one final time. There was a last gasp, and she noticed the bleeding eyes and frothy mouth. Leonie went cold at the sight. His hand tightened on her arm before he became still.

A whizzing sound warned Leonie the other assassin was sliding down the rope to finish the job. Reacting purely on reflex she spun and hurled the dagger at the shadow. Snagging the satchel with a claw, she leapt away without a backwards glance. The injured leg failed her, turning the leap into an untidy sprawl. Still, she landed a few paces further than the average human, rolling awkwardly before coming up hard against a wall.

She was about to get up and bolt, but realised there were no more attacks. Three dark lifeless figures were now lying in the street. Her throw had hit right on target. What disturbed her was the suddenness of his death, confirming to her that the dagger had indeed been coated with a fast-reacting poison.

The dogs may have recognised something; maybe the smell of death affected them. They howled a short distance away. Yapping was one thing, but this din would definitely bring people. Picking up a piece of broken pottery, she hurled it at them, scoring a glancing blow. One of the dogs yelped and ran off, its companion followed, taking their noise with them. Slinging the satchel over her shoulders, she limped closer to the bodies.

All were dead. The first assassin had been stabbed through the heart; the second had the dagger embedded in his shoulder. Not a fatal strike in itself, but he was just as dead. Those dying of the poison had blood and froth on their faces. How much time have I got? Why hadn’t she died already? She wiped her face to check. No sign of blood, yet.

Finding nothing more than another glowing dagger, blowpipes and a small box of darts, she stowed what she could in the bag. Perhaps something could be gleaned from these items; maybe the particular clan of the Jart’lekk.

Slashing a length from the courier’s cape, Leonie bandaged the leg wound to slow the bleeding. She was tempted to examine the bag’s contents, but a door opened up further down the road and a curious citizen stepped out with a lantern.

“Time to go.” Slinging the short-sword across the other shoulder, she melted into the shadows. She plucked the plumes from the couriers hat. Whatever House the courier represented, they’d want to know what happened.

After a couple more blocks and almost failing to dodge a patrol of guardsmen, she slowed down. Whatever was in the bag was bouncing around, the weight bruising her shoulder and back. What’s so important to assassinate a courier? she wondered over and over. The Jart’lekk don’t come cheap.

Curiosity burned within her to examine the bag’s contents, but not as much as the fire and pain in her leg. She was very hot; her fur matting to her skin. The effects of the poison? Leonie pushed on, recalling the gruesome deaths of the others; their faces a bleeding, frothing rictus. She had to get back to Jade before she too became another victim. Jart’lekk in Delta were a bad thing, as was attacking Royal Couriers. Nothing good was going to come of this, for that she was certain.

Tightening the straps of the satchel so it wouldn’t bounce as much, she made her way back to Dockside, fighting the overwhelming urge to curl up in a corner and sleep. Returning proved difficult. She could not remember parts of the journey; her leg refused to cooperate, in fact, her whole side began to numb. It wasn’t until she felt the rough wooden planks of Dockside beneath her paws that she realised she was well within the guild’s territory. Staggering, Leonie leaned heavily against a rough wooden wall. She saw a spotter sitting in the shadows. Asleep, her mind vaguely registered. He’s earned a rude awakening, but when she moved, her leg buckled, turning her step into a fall.

*

Leonie opened her eyes. Jagged flashes of agony knifed through her head. She quickly turned away from the sunlight streaming in through the window. After a short rest to let the nausea subside, she tried cracking her eyes open again slowly.

The room was almost recognisable, but her fuzzy mind was not working well. Motes of dust swirled slowly, rising and falling as they passed through the fingers of light clawing their way to the back of her eyes.

Averting her eyes from the harsh light, she saw a ewer and cup on a table by the bed. Her fingers fumbled, spilling half the contents over her and the table, it was all she could do to raise the cup to her lips and drain it before slumping back into the pillows. Darkness rose, dragging her back into unconsciousness before the dropped cup hit the floor.

She heard a door open and close, then soft footsteps approach.

“Morning.” Jade greeted her when her eyes fluttered.

Leonie’s attempted reply was a mere grunt.

“Cat got your tongue?” Jade placed the satchel on the end of the bed. “I’m glad you made it back to the land of the living.” She retrieved the cup from the floor and poured more water. She flicked her blonde hair over her shoulder to help Leonie sit up and drink. “You do realise the cost of your continued existence with us wasn’t cheap? Herb lore to counteract the poisons of the Jart’lekk isn’t well known. Luckily we knew of an apothecary with such knowledge, and that you had the foresight to bring samples of the poison. It is lethal, capable of killing a man in thirty seconds.”

“I counted twenty,” Leonie croaked.

“Ah, we can speak. Good. Your resilience to the poison is astounding, to say the least.” Jade placed the jug and glass on the table. “The apothecary didn’t think you’d make it - now I’ll have to pay him extra. I don’t much like the idea of assassins wandering my streets, or trying to kill you.” Jade pulled up a chair beside the bed and lifted the flap of the bag. “So far all we know is assassins murdered a courier – for the satchel contents I assume. And you got a tad too close.” She crossed her long legs and sat back, fingering the plumes in her hands. “Enlighten me. What happened?”

With frequent pauses to drink and catch her breath, Leonie related all she could. By the end, she was exhausted.

“You need more rest.” Jade stood up. “I’ll get the boys out to dig up what they can. If the Jart’lekk know who you are, you’re not safe. They hate loose ends, and with the death of two of them, they will be seeking vengeance.” She was through the door before Leonie could reply.

Leonie lay back, frustrated at the weakness that assailed her. Why assassins? What was so important? She succumbed to sleep filled with confusing images of running down dark alleys, footsteps all around – yet with no one in sight.


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