Chapter 43: Argent DepthsJune 1, 2020
“Give it back,” Vara hissed, struggling to keep her voice low as she gestured from the shadows at the mouth of a dingy alley. Dusk was falling over Argenport, and a mangy dog sat in the street beyond, just out of her reach, holding a loaf of dark brown bread in its drooling mouth.
“Damn mutt,” she cursed under her breath, gaze darting up and down the lane. “Last time I share anything with you.” A pair of Crownwatch soldiers stood less than a block away, arguing with a nervous-looking merchant. Carefully, eyes on their armored backs, Vara stood. But as she took her first step toward the dog, its ears pricked up and it was off, sprinting down the street. Vara felt her legs tense, ready to give chase. But the soldiers had stopped, hands resting near their weapons as their hard eyes tracked the fleeing animal. No… she couldn’t risk it.
Sighing, Vara turned and slunk back down the alley. It wouldn’t be the first night she had gone hungry.
Argenport’s storm-ridden spring had become a hot, muggy summer; whining with insects and nervous rumors. Caiphus ruled from the Spire, and the Crownwatch were out in force, searching for the lost princess.
Did you hear that the Clans had been planning another attack?
Idiots. Argenport’s walls have never been breached.
The Silverblades put them down. Hard.
What about the Queen?
Eilyn had told Vara to run when the Crownwatch had come for them. Vara had fled the Spire with her mother’s bodyguard right behind her. And then she had watched Daraka’s blood cover the cobblestones when he had turned to hold off their pursuers.
After that, Vara had no one.
The first week had been the hardest. She tried to return to the parts of Argenport she knew, but the wide avenues and grand houses of the Spire district were were regularly patrolled, and had few forgotten corners where she could rest. After that, she tried to find a place to sleep in the sewers, but after three damp nights dealing with rats, the stench, and worse, she fled aboveground. Eventually, hunger gnawing at her belly, and eyes stinging with dirt and exhaustion, Vara found herself sticking to the shadows of Argenport’s slums and backstreets.
With Rolant’s valkyries in the skies overhead, she quickly learned not to move during the day, and to hide among heavy crowds when she did. Large market squares and bazaars were best for that. Few people noticed a young girl with dirty clothes and haunted eyes, and the stalls were so busy that sometimes she could walk up, pocket a loaf of bread or piece of fruit, and stroll off while the merchant was busy haggling with someone else. After a while, she began to notice other strays. Orphans, pickpockets, and waifs that kept to the same streets she did. Vara steered clear of them, worried that her garments—a rich, royal purple beneath the dust and the grime—would give her away.
Observing the other children proved educational. They had been surviving in Argenport for years; stealing, begging, and sifting through heaps of refuse for scrap they could resell. Vara watched carefully, learning the tells of a distracted mark, the route of a slow grocer, and which merchants paid for scavenged goods. One such collector went a step farther. Whether out of kindness or forgetfulness, Wyatt let the children who sometimes worked for him sleep in the junkyard behind his shop. The man was cantankerous and eccentric, but Vara had seen him leave the rusted iron gate unlatched many a night.
One evening, as the sky boiled with lightning, Vara slipped through the gate herself, seeking someplace out of the stinging rain. The junkyard was a muddy mess, but she eventually found a small, dry patch of dirt beneath a large, dented shield propped up on a helmet. With the storm roaring above her, Vara slept deeply for the first time in weeks.
Vara’s dreams were not peaceful. She heard her mother shouting, telling her to run, as Icaria's cold, hungry laugh filled her mind. Fear will haunt your every step! The thud of heavy, armored boots blended with the thunder overhead, and with a crash of light and sound, she found herself standing on rolling dunes of black sand. The sky here was clear, filled with stars she did not know, and a white-haired man stood next to her, his face lined with worry. He looks like father, but… different. He stands taller, Vara thought.
The land around the was barren, the air so dry that it stung her throat. And through the darkness she could sense… things. Something malevolent and hungry, watching them both. Why does this place feel familiar? She turned to the man, opening her mouth to speak, but as she did the ground beneath them erupted, and Vara screamed as a huge, monstrous shape pulled itself from the earth. It made her feel so small. So helpless. She turned to run, her heart pounding, and—
“Oi, you alright?”
Vara blinked, suddenly back in the scrapyard. The ground was still damp, and sunlight cut through the clouds overhead. A young boy, about her age, was standing outside her shelter, frowning, as he poked her with a short length of rusted metal.
“You were shouting in your sleep,” he added.
Vara rolled to her feet, glaring. She had seen him in the market a number of times. He was a pickpocket, and good at it. Vara had watched him work, and no matter how brazen his attempt, he never seemed to get caught. He sold whatever odds and ends the other merchants wouldn’t take to Wyatt.
“I’m fine,” she lied, brushing herself off.
The boy smirked, stood, and stepped back from the tilted shield, “Sure thing.” Vara pushed past him, and had almost made it to the junkyard gate when he said, “You’re new ‘ere, right?”
Vara froze. He knows! Spine rigid, she turned, fighting to keep her expression neutral. “So?”
“Need someone else to tag along,” the boy replied, tossing the metal bar into a pile of junk with a clatter. “New fruit seller down by Southgate. Trusting bloke. You distract ‘im, I grab the goods.”
Relief flooded through her, but Vara kept her arms crossed. “I’ve seen you work. You’re quick. Who are you, and why do why do you need my help?”
“The name’s Coslo,” he replied, bending over in a mocking half-bow. “And I can grab a lot more if they’re busy tryin’ to help a scared, lost little girl.”
Vara’s eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth to reply when her stomach growled. He has a point… “Fine,” she said, curtly.
Coslo grinned, “Excellent.”
Two hours later, and the pair were sitting on the roof of a squat, brick building that overlooked the marketplace. Vara’s fingers were sticky with peach and plum juice as she laughed, “Did you see his face when I turned and ran?”
Coslo grinned, “Eyes poppin’ out of his head!” As he spoke, he selected a peach pit from the pile between them—picked clean by hungry hands—and tossed it into the crowd below. “You’re a natural,” he said, his voice still full of laughter. “Been workin’ for old man Wyatt long?”
Tension stole into Vara’s shoulders. “I don’t,” she admitted, watching Coslo carefully. “I… needed a place to sleep. Somewhere dry. And safe.”
“Haven’t been on your own long, then,” the pickpocket said. It wasn’t really a question. Vara looked up and his expression was opaque, guarded.
She shook her head as something pressed into her chest, making her heart pound. “No.”
“The nightmares,” Coslo said, “are they of what happened to your parent—”
“It’s more than that,” Vara interrupted. She didn’t want to think about it. The flight from the Spire. The fear in her mother’s eyes. “I see… other places But they don’t feel like nightmares. More like memories.” She shook her head. Why was she talking to this boy? She barely knew him
“I get it,” Coslo said, simply.
Vara blinked. “You do?”
“Sure,” he continued, looking away. “You feel like your body isn’t your own. Your brain acts up an’ you just got to weather the storm. Half the time people don’t believe you when y’talk about it.”
“Yeah…” Vara said quietly.
“I…” Coslo hesitated, and she realized for the first time that he might be nervous or scared himself. “I see things, sometimes. Flashes of what’s going t’ happen. Or might happen. Just a few seconds before it does, usually.” Coslo shrugged, and turned back to Vara. “Makes me a damn good cutpurse.”
“So why did you—” she started to ask, but the question was drowned out by a large, booming voice in the marketplace below.
“Argenport, listen and attend!”
The speaker was a man in heavy plate armor, bearing the eagle of the Crownwatch. A large dinosaur stood next to him, horns shining in the midday sun. Together, the pair commanded the attention of the crowd as the crier said,
“Word from the Spire! From King Caiphus!”
A ripple of curious murmurs ran through the marketplace. The man cleared his throat, then continued, “Thanks to the dedication of the King’s valkyries the last of the seditious Clans have been exterminated.” This time the crowd cheered. Vara felt her jaw clench, gaze locked onto the paladin.
“When they first came to our gates, Caiphus treated with them in good faith. He married their Queen of the Wilds, Eilyn, in an attempt to maintain peace.” There were jeers and boos at this, and Vara realized that she was standing, hands clenched in fury as Coslo pulled urgently at her arm.
“Our Queen knew of the Clans and their plot,” the man said, solemnly. “Any accord she had with the King is broken with this treachery. From this moment, Caiphus proclaims both her and her daughter as outlaws, and traitors to the Throne. Anyone information about the princess’ whereabouts will be handsomely rewarded.”
“Come away,” Coslo hissed. “You’ll get us caught.” Vara let herself be pulled back from the edge of the roof, throat raw from the holding back her anger.
“He’s lying,” she finally said, voice shaking.
“They always do,” Coslo muttered. Carefully, the pair climbed down the rough brick wall to an alleyway next to the market, hot tears stinging Vara’s eyes. She didn’t want to hear any more, but she had to. Coslo turned, gesturing back towards the slums, but she shook her head. He might say something else about mother!
The conversations of the crowd were growing, but the crier touched his mount’s flank, and the beast roared, loud enough to leave Vara’s ears ringing. The crier spoke into the silence that followed, “In their stead, Prince Kaleb has been named the true and rightful heir to the Throne. And to celebrate the event, King Caiphus has commanded a grand festival!”
Kaleb. He was a few years older than Vara, already free to roam the city and beyond while she had been kept inside the walls of the Spire. She had only met him a few times, and he had always treated her with contempt and naked jealousy. Any attempt at conversation quickly devolved into an argument.
“And during this festival, Prince Kaleb will have the honor of executing the traitor Queen!” The crier concluded, voice ringing over the square.
Executing the traitor.
All anger fled from Vara’s body and she fell to her knees. What can I do? Daraka’s dead. The Clans are gone. I have no one.
“Come on,” Coslo pleaded, eyes darting around the alleyway.
Vara shook her head slowly. “Th-that’s my mom.”
Coslo froze, then took a slow breath. “Oh. You’re her.”
Vara nodded numbly. “They’re going to kill her.” As she said it, she remembered the thunder of Daraka's voice as he charged their pursuers. For the Clans! She also remembered the pounding rain the night before, and the feeling of helplessness as the nightmare consumed her. “I… I won’t let them.”
Shakily, Vara pushed herself to her feet.
I won’t let them.
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