“You mean to tell me that not only did you let her see you, you also had chocolate at her study?” Gisako was speaking in slow and measured tones. At first she had been very pleased with Akina for her initiative in following Jakitza, but her satisfaction had gone down steadily as the young Moonshade reported her experience.
“I couldn’t just hide, mistress.” Akina was kneeling in front of Gisako. “Those… things were attacking the archmage.”
“And don’t you think an archmage would have had no problem in dealing with minor apparitions?” Gisako said. “Maybe that was just a show for your benefit.”
“Mistress, with all due respect but… why are you so mistrustful of the archmage? Isn’t she your friend?” Akina’s tone was respectful, but there was a sparkle of defiance in her eyes.
Contrary to what everyone believed, Jakitza did keep herself in shape by practicing the fighting style she had learned in her time as a Hawk Maiden. It was just that her chosen field of exercise was south of the lighthouse, where no one had any interest in settling despite the beautiful green hills that rolled down before they were cut short by the high and unclimbable cliffs by the sea.
Also, she always practiced by night. In that she was totally different than her master, who used the night to stare at the stars to divine the fate they painted in the sky.
She was running by the edge of the cliffs, wearing only her skirt and top and carrying her staff. Not only did she ever let it leave her side, but it also replaced the halberd that this exercise was intended for as she made thrusts and swings while running. The only light in the cloudy night came from the staff’s crystal head, tracing arcs and lines as Jakitza moved.
She reached the end of the even terrain before the hills gave way to mountains and stopped, panting and catching her breath. A common misconception about arcane magic was that it was a purely cerebral practice. One definitely needed a mind that could wrap around the alien concepts of spellcasting praxis, but the complex formulas and incantations only served to shape the energy of the world into the desired shape. The energy itself? The mage had to channel it through his or her body directly from the Dreamlands and the world itself.
It had been three days of sailing for Behari, Niriko and Pawaht on board the Rowdy Waves, a small coastal trade ship. It wasn’t a passenger ship but it was the first to sail with Beldatz as a stop, and Pawaht had negotiated for them to work as part of the crew. Any initial misgivings the captain had on allowing two women to work the riggings were dispelled at the first show of Niriko’s nimbleness and Behari’s strength and balance.
Also, any hope from the sailors to sample the young women’s flesh was extinguished when, during dinner the first night of travel, one of the sailors tried to grab Behari and lost his ponytail to an invisible slash from her short sword, with the implied threat of where she would aim if she was forced to unsheathe the long one.
“Ship ahead!” The lookout shouted, his voice muffled by the constant crashing of the waves against the hull. The reaction from most of the sailors was to look curiously forward while keeping to their work. It wasn’t rare for ships to cross along trading routes, especially coastal ones.
Gisako couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. She made the arrangements for some “entertainment” for the governor, and Zintzi had relayed the confirmation from the ‘troupe’ of performers, who were actually the Noonshades they would confer with.
Zintzi’s tone hinted that there was something strange. Maybe not wrong, but the deal wasn’t going as expected, so Gisako posted an extra couple of regular guards in the audience hall, and six of the more experienced Moonshade agents hiding in the shadows or mingling with the courtiers.
To make things even more suspicious, Jakitza had arrived, taking advantage of her standing invitation to Palace activities. She never left the lighthouse these days unless something really interested her, and catching the attention of the youngest archmage in the Empire might not be something good.
Gisako had distanced herself from Jakitza even as she became a Hawk Maiden officer and her teammate recovered from her magical accident and retreated with Master Quitzam. Gisako worried during those days that Jakitza was losing her soul or something, but now her worries were more directed towards the young archmage’s sanity.
Gisako wasn’t the only one, of course. The courtiers gave Jakitza a lot of room, and she returned the courtesy by not paying them any attention.
“Archmage Egoski.” Gisako bowed politely when she received her once friend. “Such a rare pleasure for you to visit.”
“I needed a distraction, Lady Gizaletzi.” Jakitza smirked. She was the shorter of the two but still gave the impression to be looking down at Gisako, a hint of an amused smirk in the corner of her lips. “And I hear today’s performers are something rather… special.”
Gisako narrowed her eyes. Jakitza wouldn’t refer to today’s secret meeting like that if she didn’t know about it.
One of the most common and ancient sayings is “all roads lead to”, followed by the name of the thriving city of the times. Right now it was Jasokari, the Empire’s capital, connected to the rest of the Empire by a growing network of highways as well as rivers and sea routes.
The main highways are considered Imperial jurisdiction, while provincial roads and navigable rivers belong to the Noble House that rules the territory they cross. However, everybody knows that the true masters of the roads are the courier brotherhoods and the porter guilds. Their guides know the roads like the proverbial back of their hands, but as they are also quite familiar with their palms, they too know many shortcuts and secret paths.These half-recognized organizations charge a price for their services, a fee that depends on their reputation and proven effectiveness, and because of that, a courier, guide or caravan guild is only as good as its fame.
Suffice to say, this leads to pretty intense rivalries that are not always friendly.
Gisako was strolling through the streets of the city, looking for all the world like a well-dressed lady out for a day of shopping. She had no important appointments until late afternoon and was more or less free to do what she wanted. And right now, she wanted to find the Noonshades.
Equinox, her real name being Akina, was with her as always, performing her roles of personal attendant, secretary and partner in crime. Gisako’s own network told her that her best bet for finding the elusive freelance spies was an information broker that operated out of one of the tea houses in the alleys around the central plaza. Most of those were decent places, if not particularly fancy.
Gisako took a long look and chose one of the houses at random. Its name was Wind Over the Mountains and was the typical three-story tea house and restaurant; its clientele consisted mostly of merchants taking a break from the comercial activity happening in the central plaza, plus a few ministers both from the nobles, the Palace and commoner guild merchants. Very few normal citizens visited this place, preferring the houses right on the plaza’s edge.
“So, you are my personal advisor, right?” Gisako asked Equinox as they walked inside.
“I’m… honored if you consider me in that light.” The girl blinked, walking briskly behind her.
“Yes, I consider you in that light. And as such, you will have to advise me on my future husband.” She chuckled and winked lightly. She was speaking out loud on purpose, both playful banter and also a means of making people talk about the fact that she was looking for a husband.
Gisako walked through the long corridors of the Palace, followed, as always, by her personal assistant.
“There is one last thing for the day.” The girl said. She was just out of training but she could expertly hide the silvery tattoos of the Moonshades under her long sleeves. Her codename was, curiously, Equinox. Gisako remembered the original Equinox who have served in the palace before… she’d rather not go into the details on why this young girl now bore her name.
“Lord Itzalan requests an audience with the governor.” The girl finished.
“Oh, great.” Gisako moaned in a pitiful kind of way. “Well, duty is duty. When is the audience to take place?”
“During tea.” The girl said. “I hear he wants to propose his son as a suitor for Lady Tzie, but my sources could be wrong… or confused. There are many amongst the nobles talking about why the governor has not taken a husband.”
“Of course they would.” Gisako inclined her head and hid a bright smile behind a slight chortle. “They want to have that position of power and they’re uncertain why she hasn’t deemed anyone worthy. As if any of them would deserve it anyway.”
“Pardon my asking but…” The girl blinked, hurrying after Gisako. “It would be a smart political move, would it not?”
One thing Tzie had been adamant in the training of the new generation of Moonshades in their clan was to foster the agents’ ability to think for themselves and voice their opinions, regardless of rank or age. Young Equinox was the proof that the policy was working well. Despite her inexperience she had already built a network of informants all her own without the Order’s help and she’d had several good insights. Gisako suspected the girl would receive full agent status soon, and she’d have to look for a new assistant.
It was plain to see that Niriko had spent the last few days on the road. Unlike with most people however, the dust somehow made her look even more exotic and attractive. The patch over her right eye made things even more… different, but it helped create a certain aura of roughness that her soft, delicate features simply lacked. She still looked much like a teenager, a very beautiful teenager at that.
She chuckled slightly as she went into the tavern and looked around, remembering the last talk she had with Gisako, who still poked her about the fact she didn’t age nearly as fast as any of the others.
“What will you have, kid?” The bartender grinned when he saw her. “Some milk?”
The nearby patrons laughed quietly, all of them looking like mercenaries and other rough customers.
“Awww, don’t laugh at poor little me.” Niriko said with a grin as she swayed through the room to the bar, making a point to mark her pace with the butt end of her halberd on the ground. “I don’t want to hand you all your butts back in pieces. There are some sexy ones even.”
“Oh, a feisty one.” The bartender laughed as she reached the bar, but he was measuring her. He had an expert look in the way he was analyzing her, and she too recognized that he knew more about martial arts than half his patrons put together.
“I’ll have some light wine then.” She said, leaning against the bar with a playful smirk on her features and leaning the halberd against the bar next to her.
“Tha’s a big weapon for such a wee girl…” A drunken patron chuckled.
The rhythmic shouting of two scores of girls practicing lightened up the somber mood of the lighthouse tower’s top. The books that lined up the walls absorbed some of the sound, but the occupant could still hear it, but was so used to it that it was just part of the background. However, as it would happen from time to time, Archhmage Jakitza Egoski would stop her studies and listen to the young and energetic voices of the Hawk Maidens in training.
It was not half a decade ago that she had been part of that throng, before Master Quitzam disappeared and left his study, his tools and, most importantly, his books, to her.
The master wizard’s legacy had not been wasted. Jakitza remembered the months she spent cataloguing the library’s contents and deciding to finally quit the Hawk Maidens to become Beldatz’s resident wizard in place of her old master, and part of the order’s faculty members in his stead.
The young woman stood up and went to one of the balconies, watching the girls practice diligently. Only a handful of them were veterans of the crucible event that had cemented the Hawk Maidens’ place in the city’s defense, and none part of the first generation to ever cross the fort’s gates to train under Lady Tzelan.
“Smoke and thunder.” She heard the crackled voice of the xolotzin elder behind her. “If you were as adept at astrology as old Quitzam, you would know what that means.”
“I am not my master.” Jakitza answered in fluent Draconic. “I am not content to watch.”
Behari stood atop a high hill a soft breeze tugging at short, ruffled hair and whipping her long braid behind her back. She cast her gaze over the landscape that spread out before her, the leagues she would still have to go until the next bigger settlement, let alone a city and she smiled to herself. She raised a gloved hand, brushing it through her hair before it settled again on the hilt of her sword.
“Short hair does have its advantages.” she murmured only to herself and laughed slightly, remembering how she had first come to wear her hair short in front. It seemed…ages ago, even if she knew it had only been ten years. Now she was traveling and she had been traveling for a long time.
Her cloak was torn in some places, but still served her well. Her clothing was not really tidy, but what could you expect after weeks of traveling with only the briefest of stops at cities or villages? Maybe it was time to spend a few nights inside a city again, for the change of things. She nodded to herself again before she continued on her path.
She was reaching the more hilly regions of the empire, abandoning the plains and rolling hills. She could see mountains in the distance, which told her she was heading in the right direction, at least according the map she had consulted in the last town. It was too expensive for her to buy and she was on a budget. A budget that was threatening to run out soon if she wasn’t careful.
There was a lot of mercenary work around, but that was mostly in the bigger cities. She was also not afraid of some hard work in farms and small towns, but people did tend to look at her strangely. Even with her hair so short and the braid hidden under a work hat, she was undeniably a woman. Years of training had only accentuated her curves, and her exotic looks did turn more than one head around. Continue Reading »