Chapter 12: The Promise of Reward

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Sev stared through the breathsteel window at the blood moon. The argent throne formally condemned him on his homecoming.

    He didn’t shed a tear or whisper a prayer. His soul dried up on the voyage home. Though he could still see the colored lights shining through the windows, his mood dulled their brilliance and robbed them of their luster.

    "We never should have gone," he said under his breath. 

    Lacking the energy to even regret, his words were as devoid of presence as his voice.

    As they pulled into the harbor, Sev overheard the others discussing how they were going to deliver the ark tonight to rid themselves of it and get the rest of the money Garland owed them.

    Sev forced himself out of his bed, donned his frock coat, and made his way above deck.

    They lowered the gangway to the deck, and Crane ran ahead to buy a cart.

    “I am going with you,” Sev said.

    Maeve didn’t argue with him, but he saw the argument play out in her eyes.

    “Don’t worry,” he said, “I won’t do anything stupid. I just want to be there in case you need me.”

    Jade loaded the arc onto a cart.

    “It’s been a while since you have been a part of the world,” Harley said. “Are you sure you don’t want to give yourself some time to get used to the waters again?”

    “I will be fine,” Sev said. “It’s not like I’ve forgotten the rules of civilized society.” He sneered when he said the words. “I would worry more about them than about me.”

    “Do you think Garland plans to double-cross us?” Jade asked.

    “I don’t know what part he had to play in all of this, but he is a stranger with a lot of money. That means he has blood on his hands,” Sev said.

    “There is no great fortune without a great crime.” Harley smirked. “I can’t argue with that.”

    “Our blood won’t be a part of it without a good fight,” Jade said.

    “Everyone on the cart,” Maeve said. “We have a delivery to make.”

    “And if they are not awake when we get there?” Crane asked.

    “We knock louder,” Maeve said.

    Sev recognized the worry in Maeve's eyes and wanted to assure her he was all right, but the words would not come. How could he reassure her when he couldn’t reassure himself?

    As the cart rolled through the streets of this city he knew so well, everything appeared just a little different, like seeing it through a smokey mirror.

    The dark sky lost its velvety darkness, and the stars didn’t twinkle.

    Maybe a storm flushed the city with some covering that muted not only the colors, but the reflectivity of the wind vanes and the crystals embedded into the aether vanes that monitored the flow of magic over the island.

     Small, shadowy creatures skittered about that he had never seen before. At first, he thought they were rats, but many, if not most, of them walked on two legs.

    None of these little creatures acted maliciously. They furtively avoided the light of the gas lamps and the crimson glow of the moon. Whatever they were, they didn’t want to be seen or even noticed.

    Before he said anything to his companions, he scanned through the group to find signs that they saw them too. None of them reacted to any of them, even when a small group of them scurried across the road in front of them.

    The bay cathar that pulled the cart continued her knuckle walk through with no sign she noticed them at all.

    Maeve gripped his hand and squeezed it.

    “I’m all right,” Sev said. “It was unfair to cut you out of my life like that.”

    “Yes, it was,” Maeve said with a churlish grin. “We have supported each other through so many things. Why would you think this would be any different?”

    Sev shrugged. “I didn’t have words. If I didn’t understand, it would have been unfair to expect you to.”

    “So, no more secrets?” she asked.

    Sev watched the strange shadows creeping through the city streets. “I can’t promise you that, at least until I understand what is going on myself.”

    “That’s fair,” Maeve said. “As long as you don’t stop talking to me again.”

    “It’s a deal.”

    Sev rested his head on Maeve’s shoulder and allowed himself to remember what it was like to have a family.

    As they wended through the city, the night grew darker, and it was harder to make out the forms of the little creatures. If the shadows didn’t move like a curtain in a draft, he might have believed they were gone.

    This darkness added a metallic flavor to the air without an accompanying smell. 

    Sitting up, Sev watched the darkness concentrate over a house at the end of the lane.

    He smiled.

    The sky wasn’t dark. They warded the building to blind the ever-watchful eye of the moon from seeing what they did. To his own eye, the house resembled a mirage in the heat.

    As they parked in the cul-de-sac, the door to the house opened and a cloaked figure emerged from the well-lit vestibule. They motioned for them to enter with their gloved hand.

    “He must have lookouts,” Jade said.

    After disembarking from the cart, Jade picked up the ark. 

    Maeve took the lead and set the slow pace toward the door.

    A set of eyes glimmered from every window, monitoring their every step toward the building. Garland either increased his security since they had been gone or he did a superb job of keeping them out of sight before now.

    Within the lavishly decorated entrance hall, Ok’un in polished armor stood like statues around the walls and periodically up the stairs to the landing on the second floor.

    Garland himself kneeled at the top, talking with a red panda sadath whose familiar stared down at them.

    Maeve raised a hand to halt their ingress.

    Everything in sight gave off a sense of opulence, from the materials of the drapes to the carpets to the gilding that coated almost everything.

    Perfume diffusers lent a sweet floral scent to the air which was cooled by cold crystals hanging over porcelain basins that collect the water dripping from them.

    Garland finished his conversation and adopted a bright smile like a well-worn mask. He stood up and threw his arms out to the side in greeting, and said, "my friends, I am so glad you have returned. And what is this? You found the ark."

    He walked down the steps with a gate intended to imply playfulness, even giddiness. The coldness in his eyes expressed his authentic emotions.

    "It was easier than we thought it would be," Maeve said.

    Sev watched Garland closely.

    He smirked briefly before widening his smile to his eyes. "I am so glad to hear it. I hoped it wouldn't be too much of a bother for you."

    "No problem at all." Maeve nodded.

    Garland snapped his fingers and an ox sadath came forward with equipment, identifying him as an artificer.

    "We have to verify that this is the ark we sent you after. I'm sure you understand."

    Maeve motioned for Jade to set the crate down. "Of course, you paid us a lot of money. It's only right that you check your investment before you pay us the rest of what we are due."

    The artificer opened the crate and inserted a device with crystals inserted into it.

    "Where are my manners?" Garland said. "Would you like something to drink? After all, you must've come here directly from your ship, or I would've heard that you returned to Port earlier."

    "I would not like to think that we took advantage of your hospitality," Maeve said. “After all, people like us require a good report to drum up new business.”

    The artificer withdrew his hand. “This is the ark.” 

    Garland smiled. “The Nofraan people will be pleased to have the sacred relic returned to them.”

    "Then we have fulfilled our part of the bargain," Maeve said.

    "You have indeed." Garland snapped his fingers. "In fact, you have exceeded all of my expectations of you. If I have any further work, I will gladly send it your way."

    Maeve bowed her head. "We are always happy to serve."

    An Ok’un stepped forward with a bag of coins on a tray.

    Garland picked up the bag. "I will not be offended if you count your payment before you go." He tossed the bag gently through the air at Maeve.

    She caught the bag, and the coins jangled like a tremble dedicated to the God of wealth. "I think you have proven yourself to be trustworthy. Besides, any failure to live up to the terms of the contract would be punishable by the Admiralty Court. No one needs that sort of headache."

    Maeve bowed again, and the others followed suit.

    The Ok’un sprung to life and the mechanical soldiers ushered them to the door. 

    Maeve motioned for them to keep silent.

    They hopped onto the cart and drove away from the estate.

“He didn't expect all of us to make it back,” Jade said. “I could see it in his eyes. He was surprised to see us.”

    "That's because he set the trap we walked into," Maeve said.

    "I was wondering why you did everything but pledge fealty to him as your Lord," Crane said.

    "Overly grateful idiots is what he expected us to be. I only hope I didn't overplay the part."

    "Well, I almost believed you forgot about everything that happened on the voyage," Sev said. "We'll know soon enough if he bought it."

    "You don't think he'll try to kill us, do you?" Crane asked.

    “That depends on how worried they are about having any witnesses,” Sev said. “We may not understand what we saw, but if we tell the wrong people, they just might.”

    A silver light caught Sev's eye. 

    He looked up at the moon and nodded with a smile. 

    “We just need to make sure that we are ready for whatever comes next.”

Welcome to the Shadow Phoenix Saga. I hope you enjoy this series and this world.

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