*Looking for test readers - currently no editing or proofreading needed, but simply your opinion if the opening chapter hooks*
Amelia rarely failed in her undertakings. This time, however, she knew she had gone too far. Hanging onto the edge of a roof, high above the busy streets of the Blooming City, she tried to stifle her groans of exhaustion, feeling her fingers slip off the ledge that prevented a bone-shattering death.
Amidst the laughter of people passing beneath her dangling feet, the clanking sound of armor rang out as the Royal City Guard roamed the streets.
“She must be around here somewhere!”
“We can not let her escape!”
The city celebrated the annual Midnight Market, immersing the old town in a sea of candles and flowers. The citizens were invited not only to buy goods but also to celebrate exuberantly as port wine was available on every corner. It was a festival for the senses. Colorfully dressed jugglers performed their tricks, flavors of spicy food and sensual oils lingered in the air, the dark shadows of the alleys often used to satisfy people’s desire as their passionate moans and cries filled the night’s air.
It was also a festival for thieves, yet Amelia had been foolish enough to fall for Captain Strongweather’s disguise. His noble merchant clothes had made her dream of rich profits, the fat money pouch on his leather belt too good to be true. Yet she had also been quick enough to free her wrist from the captain’s grip and fast enough to flee through the crowd, the roofs of the old town providing the only way to escape the guards who’d stood ready for any criminal discovered. And with the armed men on her heels and the prospect of perishing in a dark, dank dungeon, Amelia had become uncareful a second time this night. For one loose roof shingle later, she found herself in the unfortunate situation of hanging on for dear life high above the streets.
As if that wasn’t enough, she also knew she would face serious trouble if she returned without levy to the Foxhole.
If she returned.
So, her gaze clung to her hands, begging them to persevere just a little longer.
“Find the thieving skunk!”
Amelia tried to blow a strand of her lilac hair out of her eyes. “The thieving skunk is right here above the empty vessels you call your heads,” she hissed through gritted teeth and pushed herself up in a last attempt to get a better grip. But to no avail. With a silent yelp, her left hand slid off, and Amelia had to balance the momentum of her plummeting body, now hanging with all her weight on just one hand.
If I survive this, Cornelius will kill me for trying to steal from Strongweather. A dark grin flitted across her face as the scarred features of her mentor and King of Thieves appeared in her mind. The old bastard will be livid, knowing that if anyone were to succeed in stealing from the Royal Guard, it would be me.
But her smile was short-lived. At the end of her strength, the muscles began a trembling dance, and Amelia knew there was no other way out but to take a fall. Her gaze went down, and her honey-dipped pupils focused on what lay far below her. It was her only chance to survive her predicament in the form of a small stall with a canopy.
Beads of sweat formed on her forehead while the remaining hand on the roof grew increasingly clammy. A trickle of blood ran down her arm. “Damn it,” she cursed. If I manage to land in the sail, I’ll probably break many bones. Amelia took another desperate look. But I still might be able to escape.
Another group of guards rushed through the streets, their torches searching every corner and shadow of the night, their scarlet cloaks warning everyone to get out of their way.
Too thick to look up, Amelia thought, her frantic eyes returning to the desperate grip of her hand. She knew her instincts prevented her from letting go, thirty-three feet too much for her brain to accept an intended fall. But her cramped fingers unfastened, one by one, and seconds later, Amelia’s body dived into the deep.
With her arms and legs rowing in the air, she awaited the inevitable, the plunge feeling like an eternity as she shot past the stone wall. When she finally hit the sail of the stall with a dull thud, the entire structure imploded with a loud rumble, the wooden posts and boards burying the young woman underneath. A sharp sensation exploded in Amelia’s left shoulder as she hit the ground on her side, excess saliva gathering in her mouth from the intense hurt.
At first, she didn’t move, kept her eyes shut as she tried to breathe the pain away. Blown-up dust trickled onto her, and Amelia waited for another moment, then moved her arm. She blinked her eyes open as she propped herself up with a groan, coughing and spitting. Her shoulder was a disaster, and her right ankle throbbed as she crawled out from under the sail, the juice and pulp of oranges and other exotic fruits stuck to her face and hair.
Amelia looked up where she had hung only moments ago and started laughing. “Shit, what a fall.” She supported herself on her thighs and cried out, her hand going to her injured shoulder where a bump protruded. Only then did she notice that a crowd had gathered, watching her with open mouths.
Someone whispered, “Is she a–?”
“Well, look at her hair.”
Something started to stir in the rumbles of the collided stall. A person’s backside appeared, and the man climbing out ranted and swore as he wiped the remains of fruits from his clothes and visage.
Turning around, he glared at Amelia. “You! These were goods from the Ancient Lands!”
People, both sober and drunk, closed in on them with an eerie eagerness reflected in their eyes.
“You ruined my business, you worthless street rat!” The man took a step forward, his hands clenched into fists. “I swear, you will pay for this, hussy.”
“Show the whore where it’s at,” slurred a man.
“Off with her hand,” another woman screamed.
Amelia let go of her shoulder and reached into her vest pocket, and her fingers welcomed the familiar touch of her folding knife. Thanks to the gods, I haven’t lost it.
In the distance, a red-golden helmet made its way through the street towards the crowd. Then, another one appeared, and then another one.
“Guards! Over here!” the merchant cried out.
It was high time to leave. Amelia turned in all directions, the heads of the guards moving closer as her eyes fell on two young boys watching the whole show, big smiles on their faces. The enraged merchant shouted another expletive at Amelia and proudly turned to a man who praised him for his eloquence.
It’s now or never. She sprinted off and rammed the young lads to break out of the ring of people. Unsure whether the snapping sound came from her injured shoulder or from one of the boys falling to the ground, Amelia took to her heels nonetheless. Screams followed her as she fled through the streets, pushing people out of her way while stumbling over baskets and jugs of the market’s other stalls.
A commotion broke out as the sounds of armor mixed with yells.
“Move,” Amelia heard the brutish voice of a guard, followed by a muffled female shriek. The echo of hurried footsteps and the increasing glow of torches told her that her pursuers were close. So she bit down on her lip, blocked out the pain of her injuries, and ran faster.
“There she is!”
A group of armed men chased after her. When Amelia looked over her shoulder, she saw Captain Stoneweather, still wearing the merchant’s clothes, and now pointing his sword in her direction. Making a sharp right turn, she crashed into the wall of the adjacent alley. Her cry of agony was short but fierce, yet Amelia kept running.
“A sack of gold for the man who delivers this bitch to me alive,” Stoneweather spurred his men on.
Hoping that the narrowness of the streets would be an obstacle to the heavily equipped guards, Amelia zigzagged through the city, alley by alley. But her pursuers knew the town as well as she did, their organized hunting style a testament to their steadfastness.
You need to come up with something, girl.
Making another turn, she arrived at a long, wide street, brightly lit and, to her horror, a perfect opportunity to fire crossbow arrows at her. Amelia came to a halt and scanned the place for a potential hiding spot. Then she ran on, hopping on one leg while taking off a shoe, which she threw forward with all her might and as far as she could before disappearing into the darkness of a side alley.
Panting and listening, she waited, pressed against the wall, and with one swift motion, had her knife in hand as the guards arrived on the wide street, their sabatons creating a deadly rhythm on the cobblestones.
“Search every damn corner!”
Amelia closed her eyes, her knuckles turning white from the tight grip around her weapon. She knew she didn’t stand a chance against a horde of armed men.
But then one of them shouted, “There! She’s lost a shoe. This way!”
Amelia held her breath as the loud roar of a dozen men passed the alley she was hiding in.
Exhaling, she leaned her head back against the wall and gazed up at the starlit sky. The simplest solutions are often the most effective, she remembered Cornelius saying once and chuckled. Knew they were thick.
Falling for her little shoe trick, the guards’ trampling footsteps became more and more distant until the place was again immersed in silence. Cautiously, Amelia peered around the corner, still hesitant to leave her hiding place. But when the coast seemed clear, she crossed the street like a nimble cat and entered another alley.
Distant market sounds echoed off the stone walls, but Amelia hoped to use the maze of dark back streets to her advantage until she had reached the Foxhole. Tired and exhausted, her walk turned into a limp, and her hand traveled to her aching shoulder, where she applied a little pressure to numb the pain as the adrenaline wore off.
When a high-pitched screech, unnatural and spine-scrawling, pierced the air, Amelia froze to the spot. Suddenly the noise died away, replaced by a gurgling human scream. Never in her life had she heard such a sound as a cold lump manifested in her midsection, and a terrible urge in the back of her mind told her to turn around and see if something was following her.
But there was nothing, or so she thought, and was about to walk on as a stir caught her attention.
She whirled around and squinted her eyes at the alley’s dark entrance. Small pebbles were hurled forward, their bouncing motion foreboding. Then, a black claw felt its way around the corner of the house, producing a tapping sound on the paving stone. A hunched body appeared, hovering above the ground, sniffing the surroundings with snake-like movement. Suddenly its head shot up, swaying from side to side as two yellow orbs stared back at Amelia.
“What the hell?” Amelia took a cautious step backwards, her dilated pupils staring at the thing spreading its four legs at an odd angle. Another screech sounded nearby, and the creature listened, its swaying head still for a moment. Then it responded with a hissing snarl, exposing its razor-sharp white teeth before scurrying away like an oversized spider.
Amelia didn’t even dare to breathe. Her mind chastised her for seeing ghosts while her gut feeling implored her to get out of here. She chose the second option and once again began to run, constantly glancing back at the spot where she had witnessed this strange thing.
At a t-junction, she turned left and collided hard with something unexpected. Tumbling backwards, Amelia landed on her buttocks with a loud grunt. Then, cursing, she shook her head and glared up into the obscurity of a face.
“It’s dangerous to walk through this city without looking ahead,” said the stranger, whose coat was that of a traveler.
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