Hey everyone, Tim here, just a quick reminder I have two new books out.
Now back to the story.
Within the circle that protected Kalfar there was one city that commanded true respect and awe, the world over.
Sarsa, the seat of the Lord Executive, ruler of Kalfar. Glorious city, stern line of defense against beings from beyond. This was the richest and proudest of all cities in the near-eastern alliance.
Sarsa, city of countless exiles.
Sarsa should have drawn attention for all kinds of reasons, but there was a side of the city not often discussed on record.
Sarsa, the shadow city, where the desperate and the skillful plied their illegal trades. Darkness under street lamps. Poison in the minds of the high officials. Ice in the veins of the guilty.
That is the Sarsa to be watched.
And that is the Sarsa waiting to be seen.
Alina made her way down the street toward the mainland, out of the Fog. The streets were still damp when she found the small chapel of the angels near the docks to the south. At least four hours remained before dawn. She looked up as she passed into clearer air and saw Percival’s imp darting over the rooftops.
She could see it clearly, despite the darkness. For some reason, he never seemed to want her to go alone while working. She looked up at the imp, squinted to make sure, while clutching the bag with the mask in it to her chest, and then waved the imp down. The little demon descended.
The creature looked like an airborne rat, sans hair, perched on the street sign. The wings were leathery, but shaped like neither bird nor bat. Alina disliked the creature at once. The imp’s large eyes looked at her, glassy, but clear. “Percival,” she said. “Stop following me.”
“What if there’s trouble?” the imp croaked with a hint of Percival’s tone. “Allie.”
“Don’t call me that, Percival. Go away.”
The imp hopped forward on the street sign. “What makes you think I’m right behind you?”
“This imp—this demon is disgusting. Leave me alone.”
“The Watertakers are moving.”
“They won’t leave the Fog.”
“You’re not far enough away to be sure of that.”
“If you’re so concerned why did you agree with me before?”
“We needed to do something. But don’t be stupid and act like you have to do this alone.”
She turned her back on the imp. “Fine. But keep your distance.” She started walking away, then looked over her shoulder at the imp. “And don’t call me stupid.”
The imp did not say another word, but caught the wind from the harbor and glided up to the roof of the chapel ahead of Alina. She walked across the stony walkway beside the docks. She knocked on the chapel door.
The keeper, an old woman with tired eyes, opened the door. “Alina,” she said, “What are you doing out so late?”
“I had an errand to run in the Fog, but I got lost after the sun went down.”
The Fog is a dangerous place after dark, girl. Come in, quickly.”
Alina stepped through the doorway. She lowered the bag with the jeweled breathing mask in it to her side. She gazed across the chapel to the hanging mobile of the heavens over the altar at the far end of the narrow sanctuary. The keeper yawned, one hand to her mouth. “I’m afraid I can’t offer you much of the bed in the bell tower this time. We had a man come in, beaten, attacked by bandits earlier in the evening.”
“How terrible,” said Alina with a frown.
“Indeed. But I suppose around here, the poor ground korda suffer the worst of the violence.”
“Wait,” said Alina. “Is the man staying behind the bells… a korda.” She could not help but recall that the Watertakers were an all-korda gang.
“Of course he was, girl. Didn’t you hear me?”
Alina nodded. “Sorry, I’m just distracted.”
“You don’t have to tell me. You can rest here in the sanctuary. You should stay until sunrise.”
Alina stifled a yawn of her own. The mask felt heavy in her hand. “Thank you, keeper.”
“It is no trouble. I was just finished cleaning.”
“You work late.”
“Of course. There is much to do. But now—” she yawned again, “—I’m going to sleep.”
“Thanks again. Good night.”
The keeper smiled, then left the sanctuary for the rectory behind the sanctuary. Alina lay down in one of the pews, on her side, using the mask and its double-wrapped bag for a pillow. She did not sleep, though. She waited.
When the sounds of the keeper preparing for bed subsided completely, she opened her eyes. Alina stretched an arm, then rolled onto her back. A shadow fell across her in the light of the mobile’s glimmering stars. She started, and the shape resolved itself into the form of a man in dark clothes, with a black breathing mask.
“You are one of them,” said the man, “I thought I recognized your voice.” He reached for her with a mottled, muscular, hand.
Alina’s eyes widened. She slithered out of reach, keeping her grip on the bag with the mask. He followed her into the gap between pews. His hand wrapped around her ankle. She kicked and thrashed. He pulled and she fell onto the floor between pews.
He snarled and stalked toward her. She rolled to one side, ending up under the pew she had been laying on before. She looked the way she had rolled from, and found the korda’s shadowy face there to greet her. His arm snaked out and grabbed her shoulder. She tried to push away, but her back hit the lower part of the pew, which completely blocked her path. The korda dragged her, painfully, from her hiding place.
“We’re going for a walk,” he said, one hand at the base of her neck, brushing her skin just below her hair. She heard a rasp of metal and felt the tip of a blade poke slightly into the small of her back.
She shuddered, but managed a glare at the korda.
“Walk,” he repeated, and then pushed her ahead of him. She walked out through the chapel doors with him right behind her.
He drove her out onto a long, rickety, wooden pier, then made her walk all the way to the end.
The water was dark between her and the Fog, buildings visible in the shadowy distance.
“Where’s the mask?” asked the Watertaker.
“I don’t know,” said Alina. “One of my gang took it.”
“Which one?” he asked.
“I don’t know his name.”
“A him. Describe him to me.”
She pictured Percival, tears of frustration building in her eyes. “He’s tall, skinny, and has light skin.”
“Light skin? Like yours, westerner?
“Yes, like mine.” She felt for the heaviest part of the mask in the bag clutched to her chest in both hands. “Let me go and you’ll have time to catch him, still.”
“You think I’d fall for that?” he poked her back again with the knife, nearly piercing her cloak and the tunic beneath. He snarled. “You go in the drink, missy.”
She spun as he shoved her, swinging the mask. It caught him full in the face. His knife flew from his hand and plopped into the water. Then he hands shoved out and Alina went over the edge of the pier. Her clothes dragged her down into the dark water of the harbor.