Illustration by Enzhe Zhao
Chapter Seven JURA
The dungeons of the glass palace were a vast labyrinth of hallways and dead ends nestled nearly a hundred feet below ground. Under the escort of her Arbe, and with Tylak in tow, she had little chance of leaving unnoticed. The slave had kept his mouth shut since leaving his cell and, surrounded by her Arbe, he’d done nothing but follow her meekly.
I truly have gone crazy, she thought to herself as she stood at a forked hall. She couldn’t remember which way they should turn. Look left, look right, and praise the light. You are my choice upon this night. Left. The childhood rhyme had certainly steered her wrong before but as Jura headed left she could only hope she’d chosen the way which led to a narrow shaft that opened up outside the palace. The hallway intersected with the palace latrine and as such was always loosely guarded, most of the outskirts of the dungeon were. If luck was on her side they would be able to leave without anyone detecting them.
She stopped and turned to look at Tylak, he followed just behind. Time to find out if he can be trusted. She sent her Arbe back to her rooms thinking that if they stood outside her doors it would appear that she was safe in her chambers. She was probably a complete idiot for doing so, but she couldn’t afford to raise suspicion. If anyone in the council suspected what she was up to she would be a dead woman, better to take her chances with Tylak. She sent a silent prayer to the Everflame that she was doing the right thing; unable to actually burn the prayer, she could only hope her prayers would be heard. Once the Arbe disappeared from view she straightened her shoulders and fingered the whip she carried on her side. It was mostly for show. The whip was the chosen weapon for ladies in fashion and though Jura had managed to twist it into a good snap she’d had yet to achieve any real aim with it. Aside from her lack of skill with any weaponry, Jura doubted she could hold her own in a fight against Tylak. His body was slim, but wiry with muscle and her forced training in self-defense would likely be useless. Tylak didn’t have to know that, though. Her grip on her holstered whip tightened.
He followed her through the narrow hallway that grew increasingly foul as they traveled south. The pungent odor crept into Jura’s nostrils, grasping at her lungs and making her eyes water. She choked back the rush of bile and focused on taking short, shallow breaths. Tylak didn’t seem to notice the awful smell. They traveled in silence for several minutes, neither looking at the other until a thin snake slid over Jura’s foot. She let loose a startled gasp but stood firm ignoring Tylak’s smile.
“Did you have to take us this way? These sewers are rank.”
She hadn’t expected him to make conversation and his choice of topic was startling. Was he trying to crack a joke?
“It’s the safest way to smuggle you out of here.” She angled her body to get a better look at him but he made no response and they continued on in silence for some time. “Markhim said this was a bad idea.” She mumbled to herself.
“Who is Markhim?”
Flames but he had good hearing. “He’s my…” What was he exactly? Jura had battled over whether or not she should share her plans with Markhim. There was no one she trusted more, not even Amira. He had balked at her scheme, as she’d known he would, but in the end he’d understood why she felt the need to carry through with her plan, no matter how insane it was. His understanding was what made her love him. She grinned to herself at the revelation. I love Markhim.
“He’s my friend.”
“Ah, your lover.” Tylak smirked.
Jura choked as her strangled gasp drew in far too much of the rancid sewage air. “He’s not my lover!” She felt the heat rush into her cheeks and she shook her head so rapidly that her long braid flew over her shoulder. “He’s a friend, I–”
She cut off so she could glower at Tylak until he stopped laughing.
“Who he is, is none of your concern.” The less Tylak knew about her the better. For all she knew, the criminal plotted her death at this very moment and she refused to drag any of her friends down with her. Besides, she had yet to confess her feelings to even Markhim and she certainly wasn’t going to divulge her inner most secrets to a former slave. The awkward silence stretched on, making her uncomfortable.
“What will you with your freedom now that you have it?” She asked, desperate to once again break the silence.
He was quiet for so long she thought he wouldn’t answer when he said, “Leave. Leave the republic and never come back.”
“Where will you go?” She asked, looking back at him. His eyes were glazed and stared ahead into the darkness.
“Anywhere. The wilds maybe. Or the ocean… I need something from you.” He stopped walking and stared at her intently. He didn’t look threatening yet her hand tightened over her holstered whip.
“What do you want?”
“My birthstone…it was taken before the arrest. I’ll need it back before I can leave.”
“Birthstone? How do you–”
He held up a hand cutting her off. “Shh…there’s a noise. Just ahead.”
“We’re close to the exit. There’s probably a guard.” She hoped it was guards. She couldn’t handle if it was another snake or some other vile creature that lived in the sewage.
It was a guard, and though there was only one, he stood alert at the exit. Jura strode toward him purposefully.
“You, guard. Open the gate.”
He jumped at her authoritative voice but hesitated at the gate. “Greatness, that man you are with… he’s dangerous.”
“I believe you’re mistaken. Her Greatness has taken to her chambers for the night.” She leaned forward and said to him in her most menacing voice. “Yet if I was her Greatness I would expect to be served without answering to the likes of you. Now, shut your mouth and open the gates.” She was immediately horrified that she’d spoken to someone in such a way and pulled a small canteen of water from within her robes and handed it to the guard. “Pure water from the palace. Several days worth.”
The guard snatched the water from her hands and opened the gates without further protest.
Once outside the gates Jura breathed in deeply, taking in the freshness of the outdoor air. That was without a doubt the most disgusting thing she had ever done. And the most dangerous. Walking about the darkened dungeons with a convicted criminal, her desperation was turning into insanity. It was better not to think of the danger, she decided. Better to push forward. She squared her shoulders and walked off with purpose, only to be pulled back by Tylak.
She scowled at him. “Don’t presume to touch me,” She snarled, jerking her elbow from his grasp. Her hand flew back down to her whip.
“My apologies, Greatness,” he sneered at the word. On his lips the word was a far cry from the honorific it was supposed to represent. “But you were going the wrong way.”
She wished she was taller so she could look down her nose at him. As it were, she had to crane her neck just to meet his eyes. Sandstorms. She gestured that he take the lead and followed him into the darkness of the city.
The majority of the capital city of the Republic was plunged into darkness with every night’s setting sun. The palace could afford to keep torches of course, and the gladiator dome with its surrounding housing was an emblazoned beacon on the opposite side of the city, yet the rest of the city relied on single bonfires which were lighted nightly. The fire pits were placed in the center of courtyards that were strategically placed throughout the city.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this.” She looked down at her soiled robes and the blackness around her and fell a thrill tickle her spine.
“It’s not too late to change your mind. We can go our separate ways, nobody has to know.” Tylak offered, staring off into the distance before leisurely heading west.
“Don’t you want my help?” She slanted her eyes over at him and watched him wipe sweat off his brow with the back of his sleeve. It left a streak of black on his forehead and she winced.
“I don’t trust you with it yet.”
If I could reach his neck I would strangle him. He’d said so little on their trek through the underground prison tunnels. All she’d managed to get out of him was that he needed help recovering his lost birthstone, presumably taken into possession by the Republic after his arrest. How he’d gotten one in the first place was a fact he seemed unwilling to share.
Many in society were gifted a family birthstone upon their coming of age. The stone acted as a family crest and opened doorways into polite society. In ancient times, the birthstone was more sacred to the family and the stones were more common. Now, though most of the upper crust of society owned birthstones, they were seldom seen within society’s lower classes and certainly not in the hands of a former slave. Often times if a slave was found with one they were given to the owner to hold as token. It was common practice to gift birthstones to slaves once they were freed.
Maybe that was how Tylak received his. Her own stone, gifted to her on her sixteenth birthday lay nestled beneath her robes on a delicate silver chain. Her father was fond of saying the amber coloring matched her eyes. Still, she could see why the stone may hold sentimental value to Tylak and she’d sworn to help. A small price in exchange for information that might free her father.
“You’ll have to trust me sometime.” She said pointedly. For some reason she desperately wanted to know more about him. He reminded her of a character from one of the mystery novels she was fond of reading. Her father hated that she read the stuff, he believed her time would be better spent practicing politics or at the very least reading a book on the subject. There had been many times that Jura had found herself sneaking a quick read from novels her father believed were less than satisfactory.
“We need to hurry.” He didn’t explain why, just broke into a run and Jura hurried after him, silently cursing his name. Once she talked to the leader of the Shadow Dancers she could be done with the infuriating man. Well, after she upheld her end of their bargain. She’d managed to get herself into a real sandstorm.
After running for a good distance Jura was sure her chest would explode and she was grateful when Tylak came to a stuttering halt outside a curved building.
“Why’d we stop?” she panted loudly, desperately wishing she hadn’t given all her water away to the guard.
Tylak’s eyebrows shot upward. “The lady curses.” He whistled softly.
She rolled her eyes and took a deep breath, staring up at the quiet building. It was little more than a hut and Jura stared at the baked clay walls with some fascination. She’d never been inside a clay building. She’d read about them of course, but the palace was constructed entirely out of glass and aside from the stone walls of her bedroom she’d never known anything else. She touched the side of the building, surprised that the outside exterior was as hard as stone. Fascinating.
Tylak stood with his arms crossed, watching her.
Right, time to go inside.
“Are they,” she gulped. “Just inside?” Isn’t this what you wanted? She had the sudden thought that this could be an elaborate trap. It’s too late now, she scolded herself. She’d trusted Tylak to get her this far, she couldn’t doubt him now. Hiring a Shadow Dancer was her only chance at discovering who had placed the blood chains on her father. It was either this or rely on her own skills at sleuthing and the latter was unlikely to produce a favorable outcome. And if the Shadow Dancers held answers that would help her father who knew what other secrets they might carry? She just had to speak with a member and offer him water, surely services were rendered in the manner they were traded in the market.
Please, let this be easy.
Tylak raised a single brow and smirked. He really needed a bath. Clean the man up and he would actually look rather nice. Of course, slaves and the poor couldn’t afford to take baths and she knew the steam rooms open for the public were filthy and unsafe. Most of the people in the lower class could only afford true baths on the rarest occasions. Had he ever had one? She shook her head, now was not the time to worry over the cleanliness of those less fortunate. She had come this far, she only needed to go a bit further. She had to trust that Tylak hadn’t led her to a trap, that he would still be waiting for her once she went inside.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he mumbled, as if reading her thoughts. “Not until I get back what’s mine.”
Right. The agreement that she would return his birthstone. She only had to find where it was, steal it away and get it to him without alerting any members of the Thirteen. Easy, she thought wildly. It was a fine assumption of his that one of the Thirteen had it, it was common practice for the Thirteen to take anything of value from those convicted.
But what if it was a trap? What if she walked inside only to be assaulted by more criminals or kidnapped by a slave trader? She shuddered at the thought.
Standing outside imagining the worst isn’t going to help. It’s now or never. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
Shadows danced on the wall from a fire caged against one smooth wall of the building. There was a fireplace in the palace and she was impressed at the opulence of what she’d considered a tiny hut. The building was a single story, round room with no windows and a single door. Though small, the room wanted for nothing by the way of luxury and was filled with as many riches as Jura would find in her own chamber, perhaps more. She walked across thick carpet to a man who lounged on a sofa. He waved his Arbe away at Jura’s approach. Unlike Jura’s Arbe, the four men were dressed in the same black costume as the man relaxing on the chaise.
“I’ve been waiting for you.” The man did not turn her way but Jura felt as though she were being watched.
“You knew I was coming?” She asked, feeling foolish. Naturally the leader of an underground league of spies knew everything that happened in the city.
“Of course, I am the Prince of Shadows.”
“I’ve come for your help, I need to know about my father.”
The man laughed, his chuckle a rich baritone, and sat up to face Jura. She was surprised to see that the man appeared young, hardly older than Jura’s own seventeen years, though it was hard to be sure because he covered much of his face with a stained glass mask. Firelight reflected off the colored glass mask sending chips of broken colors to twirl about the room with each turn of his head. It was impossible to see the features beneath the stained glass. He wore black pants and a loose tunic in the style worn by Fire Dancers. His dark, shiny hair was cut close to his face and thus not a distraction from the intricately detailed mask.
“Yes little one, I know who you are and why you have come here,” he held up his hands, stretching his palms toward the ceiling. “What I want to know is why you think we would help you?”
Jura bristled at the words “little one” and took a look at the already decadent room.“I’m prepared to offer you great riches. More water than you’ve ever thought possible.”
The masked man laughed, throwing his head back and revealing a neck that was unnaturally pale. The white skin shone bright against the rick black silk of his tunic.
“Silly girl, I have no use for your water. There is nothing more valuable to me than information. I offer an exchange of information, nothing more. You’re acting as head of household now.” It wasn’t a question.
Jura swallowed, the Shadow Dancers really did know everything.
“I assume you’ll be able to give me inside information on the Thirteen. I’ll expect a full report in exchange for the information you seek.”
“Anything,” Jura’s head bobbed up and down enthusiastically. She sucked in a deep breath but she couldn’t hide her eagerness. “I’ll get you whatever you need.”
Jura saw the edges of a smile creep out from beneath the prince’s mask. “For starters you can have Tylak come out from his hiding place, I believe he and I have much to discuss.”
Jura struggled to maintain her composure as she hurried to the door to do the man’s bidding. Of course the Prince of Shadows knew Tylak by name. She’d wondered how Tylak had known the location of the Shadow Dancers and she’d had her suspicions. It appeared he was a member after all. She stepped outside, squinting out into the darkness. The building that housed the temporary headquarters of the Shadow Dancers was in a dark section of the city and after the warm glow of the firelight, her eyes took a moment to adjust.
“Tylak, where are you? You’ve been summoned inside.” She received no response and she frowned. Her eyes were adjusting and he was nowhere to be found. “Tylak?”
Still nothing. She circled the building placing an unsteady hand where her whip was holstered to her hip. There was nothing but silent blackness around her. Flames, he’d left her out here. Alone. What would she tell the prince?
She yanked open the door to the building and stumbled into an empty room. Everything was gone, the fur carpets, the furniture. Everything. Smoke curled around the extinguished fire, the only indication that anyone had actually been there at all.