CHAPTER 6 – THE JOB
FIVE YEARS LATER
Azroth swaggered down the high street, whistling as he carried his latest delivery of goods. The market had been abundant today as an influx of people crowded into Lambswell from the surrounding towns. Rumors of a great treasure making its way from the gem smiths in Solomon to the north side of Lambswell swelled with each new traveler.
Because of the influx of strangers and their extra money, Marjorie had sold out entirely and paid Azroth extra today in both food and coins. The other merchants Azroth helped throughout the day also paid him well for his efforts, and the thought made his smug smile grow wider.
The gang used to tell him it was impossible to feed them all through honest work. However, not one of them had gone without something to eat ever since he came along. Soon, those who argued against him working stopped complaining, and just accepted his oddities. Even Gabe couldn’t deny how Azroth brought in more food and money than any of them could steal in a day.
Azroth had also ensured the merchants on this side of Lambswell were safe from the residents of the Haggis, as no one wanted to disrupt their flow of food. For if they got caught stealing, it could mean Azroth getting ejected from the markets and their food supply would drop. He’d even hired out thirteen-year-old Brewster today, who’d helped the butcher with his meat. Now, the pair walked side by side with their parcels, more laden than Azroth had ever come back before. Between them, there’d be enough food to last them for four days. Maybe more if they were careful.
Passing by the silversmith’s forge, Azroth noticed several delicate chains and swords with silver filagree in their handles. Azroth’s fingers twitched. Though he didn’t steal from the merchants at the market who had become his friends, that didn’t mean everyone in South Lambswell was safe.
Azroth had tried to apprentice with the metal smiths for the past year, but they refused to take on anyone without an upstanding pedigree. To add injury to insult, the forge masters had tossed him from their shops with great gusto, ensuring a large crowd was passing by for him to land on.
Since then, they’d found their inventory shorter than when they’d gone to bed on many occasions. Maybe he’d come back tonight and relieve the silversmith of one of her chains. Then he could pair it with the ruby pendant he’d lifted a few weeks ago and finish his gift to Ariel.
Azroth let out a satisfied sigh as he saw the rickety steps that led to the Haggis’s hideout. He led Brewster up the stairs that he was certain were held together by magic and opened the door to his home. Ten kids of varying ages sat playing games on the bare floor while those responsible for making food tonight were bustling over to take the baskets from Azroth and Brewster.
“Has Ariel come back yet?” he asked one of the newer street kids, Gil.
The younger boy shook his head. “She hasn’t returned from a meeting with the Vixens yet.”
Azroth suppressed a shudder, hiding it beneath his veneer of indifference. He’d forgotten about the meeting today. He was supposed to have gone as well, except Gabe preferred him going to the markets, as it kept the peacekeepers off their backs, mostly.
Grabbing an apple and a mini loaf of cinnamon bread, Azroth slipped back outside. The cool spring air bit at his face as he bit into his apple. The breeze still didn’t like him, always whispering things like “smoke” and “ashes”. Though, after five years of the wind’s whining, he’d learned to tune it out. Wrapping his cloak tighter around his shoulders, Azroth pressed forward to the north side of Lambswell, his senses alert.
Azroth pulled his hood low to conceal his face and stuck to the shadows as he walked. With the last rays of light slipping over the city walls, a cathedral came into view. Azroth paused at a corner, peering around the side of a building. He watched for several minutes to ensure all was clear before making his way to the towering structure.
He’d crossed the canal nearly every night for two years to see the monolith. Azroth was almost certain the great treasure making its way to Lambswell was destined for this structure. He’d overheard tired laborers who’d stayed late one night discuss something about a “Sapphire Star.” Azroth couldn’t wait to get his own look at the treasure.
The massive beauty stood resolute as Azroth admired the cream-colored stone. It boasted of tall spires, grand swooping arches, and pointed windows full of stained glass. Flecks of minerals in the stone glimmered in the sunset’s pink rays, making the building take on an ethereal glow.
Several times when Azroth came, he’d found and fixed mistakes the workers had made. More than once, he filled gaps in the mortar or adjusted a brick when it hadn’t been set right. He had no control over the larger stones and curled his lips every time he walked past a particular block the builders never noticed had shifted out of position as the mortar cured.
Azroth was no mason. Yet, he’d been coming here long enough to tell when the workers had done the job wrong. He’d also eavesdropped enough to learn many things about the ways of the stone. Caution had to be his number one priority, however. If the workers, or worse, the rival gang under Riddick’s control, should discover he came here, it wouldn’t end well for this thief lord.
Walking around the base tonight, he could tell more stained glass had been added to the upper windows. Scenes of the founder of this land, Saul Comstock, depicted him doing all sorts of heroics. Azroth very much doubted whether any of them were true. No single human could slay a thousand Hein wolves. Not even the “divinely chosen” king of this land.
Unless he had the fire gift, like Azroth’s ancestor, Pryder Phoenix. After the Earth Guardian covered the city of Liteya in glowing magma, Pryder’s heart turned to flames. Fire ignited on his palm, and the light of his hatred had burned ever since, passing from one generation to the next.
However, if Saul had been a fire user, the people of this land wouldn’t treat the elemental gifts like black magic. Azroth shifted his gaze to one of the stained glass windows depicting Saul single-handedly subduing the elemental Guardians and burying them in prisons so deep, no one could ever reclaim them.
Azroth smirked at the image. Saul must have really despised the Earth Guardian. The king had buried him the deepest, and the look of derangement on the Guardian’s face was akin to the wraiths that haunted the desert. Whatever Tellen had done at the end of the empire, he’d ensured that every kingdom and people hated his name.
Azroth’s hand ran along the wall as he walked around. The roof towered seven stories above him, making this the largest building in Lambswell. Coming to the side door, he picked the lock on a side door and let himself in.
Making his way to the scaffolding below the windows, Azroth climbed up and inspected the last of the stained glass installed for the day. The workers had done a much better job than yesterday. Azroth had needed to reset one pane because it slipped from its place. Shimmying down the ladder, he wandered toward the main entrance to get into the attic.
It was almost too dark to see, but Azroth didn’t dare light a torch. He didn’t want to be seen by one of the security guards.
Azroth touched the scar that ran across the side of his neck. He also wanted to avoid being caught by Riddick. Otherwise, the gang leader would finish the job he’d started the last time he caught Azroth trespassing. If Ariel hadn’t followed him that night, Azroth would’ve become one more dark line on Riddick’s arm.
Once he felt his way to the hidden staircase and made two turns, Azroth allowed a tiny flame to light up his palm. It always gave him a rush when he tapped into it, but instead of exciting him, it felt like a lead weight in the pit of his stomach. Six stories later, Azroth entered the attic and extinguished his light. Moonbeams filtered through the open holes where windows would go.
Striding over to a window, Azroth breathed the still air deeply. The stars overhead shone down with their cold light. They’d seen so much that he hadn’t. He’d used to hope that if he saved up enough, he’d move on from this place. Unfortunately, no one moved on from Lambswell. Especially not a thieving street kid. No. His destiny was to die young on the streets or join up with the army when they came recruiting and die young in their ranks. Either way, it didn’t look good for him.
When Azroth leaned back inside, he froze. Two people stood at the top of the stairwell. A man holding a crossbow aimed at Azroth, and the woman holding a knife and a torch. These weren’t the security guards he’d usually seen. How did they catch him?
The man brought the crossbow up. “What are you doing in here, boy?”
Azroth glanced back out the window. If he moved quickly enough, he could dive outside before the man fired. He could use the offset bricks to climb down to the ground. He’d done it before when one of the security guards came lumbering up the stairs. The only downside was the last drop.
Azroth had broken his ankle, landing on the hard earth. Then he was left to avoid Riddick’s slum rats by himself while hobbling around like a beggar. Not something he was eager to try again.
“Don’t chance it,” the man said, eyeing him. “I’m a much better shot than our guards. Plus, they told me you broke your leg the last time you tried that route.”
Azroth rubbed the back of his head. “They saw that, did they?” And they hadn’t shot me?
“They did, and they also mentioned how they can’t seem to keep you out of here. Luckily, you don’t seem to come here to vandalize anything. The guards have reported that you often fix our builders’ mistakes.”
“I watched you climb up the scaffolding to check the stained glass downstairs,” the woman added.
Azroth was at a loss. He’d been so careful every time he entered the cathedral. Or so he’d thought. Apparently, these people had been watching him the whole time, testing him. He must be getting careless if they’d been able to do that.
“Why do you keep coming back?” the man demanded.
“I think it’s a beautiful building,” Azroth said, stepping away from the window. “And I want to ensure it’s done right.”
“Are you a mason’s apprentice here in Lambswell? You look like you could be in your third year of training,” the woman said. “I know they were jealous that we got the bid for the building and not one of the locals.”
“You’re not from Lambswell?” Azroth asked, his interest piqued.
“We’re from Solomon,” the man answered.
Azroth took a step closer, and the light shifted around the couple. For just a moment, he saw Wesley and Imogen standing there. His heart stuttered for two beats before finding its rhythm again. It had been so long since he’d thought about the couple who’d made him part of their family.
Then the torchlight shifted again, and all he saw was the curvy woman and the broad-chested man. He blinked, trying to revive the two people he missed most.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked, watching him curiously.
“Oi, Fire Drake!” a shout came from outside the cathedral.
Azroth’s attention snapped back to the window he’d leaned out of a moment ago. Could this night get any worse?
Bringing his back to the wall, Azroth peered down into the dark grounds and saw what must be most of the northern gang. He cursed quietly.
“I see you up there,” Riddick’s voice carried up through the still night. “Come out and face me like a man, or shall I come in and drag you out like a sewer cat? Boris spotted you sneaking into our part of the city, and you know what happens to trespassers.”
Riddick let his veiled threat hang in the air like smoke. “Plus, you owe me this debt many times over.”
Six hundred and thirty-two times, to be exact, Azroth thought.
He shot a swift glance at the couple. If Riddick came in here, there’d be little Azroth could do to protect them.
“Maybe I should set fire to this building you love so much, eh?”
Turning to the couple, Azroth said, “Don’t leave the cathedral until daybreak. And if you see your guards, tell them to do the same.”
“What gives you the right to order us around?” the man demanded. “This is our building.”
Azroth walked tentatively forward. “I have very little right. But I fear if you two die tonight, this building will never get finished. Stay hidden. Darkness brings death for gentle folk like you.”
He moved to walk past them and into the stairwell when the woman grabbed the sleeve of his jacket. “For being one of the crime lords of the southern part of the city, you’re much nicer than you’re depicted. Why are you doing this?”
“This isn’t your fight. And I want to see this cathedral finished.”
Azroth pulled his arm from the woman’s grip. Her look of disappointment was so reminiscent of Imogen that his heart clenched. For five years, he struggled to remember the redheaded woman. Her scent, the tone of her voice, and the way her arms protected him from the demons of his nightmares. Yet, this woman brought everything back with painful clarity that he had to force himself to walk by her without another word.
“What’s your real name?” the woman called.
Azroth paused, warring within himself. She asked the very question he so often asked himself. The image of Wesley and Imogen flashed into his mind again, and the words rolled off his tongue before he could stop them.
“Why do you come here, Ross?” asked the man. His crossbow was by his side. Not a safe place to be.
“Because I love the stone,” Azroth answered.
“Then you should get off the streets and find someone to apprentice with,” the man said.
Azroth let out a harsh laugh as he turned around. “If a street kid could get hired as an apprentice, I would have done it five years ago. No one wants someone like me.”
“I’ve seen your work after you’ve fixed my crew’s shoddy job. You’ve got a way with the tools, Ross. I’ve even told a few of my men to make mistakes deliberately, then waited for you to come. If you want to become an apprentice, you can have it,” the man said.
“Why would you offer this to me?” Azroth asked, unable to believe the man was in earnest.
“Because we can tell that you are a good person,” the woman said.
Azroth shook his head in disgust. “If you only knew what I’ve done––”
“If you were the cold-hearted killer the rumors say, you wouldn’t have hesitated to attack us when we surprised you,” the man said, cutting across him. “Give up the streets, and we can provide you with a home and work that doesn’t include dealing with the rival gang.”
“No one leaves this life alive,” Azroth said miserably. He squeezed his eyes shut as more memories of his last days with Wesley and Imogen surfaced. “Don’t leave until dawn. The light chases away the monsters that lurk in the shadows.”
With that, Azroth fled down the stairs, leaving the couple and the memories they dredged up far behind. He exited through a different door and sneaked into the streets beyond where he could lose Riddick.
“Got ’im!” crowed a victorious shout to his left.
Azroth sprinted forward, but an arm caught him in the throat. He landed hard on his back, and fat hands held him down. Azroth thrashed as his throat struggled to recover from the shock of the impact. He needed air, and it refused to move in or out of his lungs. Spots swam in his vision, and he was afraid he’d die there on the ground with Riddick’s cruel face shining down at him.
Then, with a mighty gasp, his airways opened up, and Azroth greedily sucked in air.
“I’ve warned you to stay away,” Riddick said, pulling out his knife and sauntering toward Azroth.
“I’m not stealing from your side,” Azroth rasped.
“That doesn’t mean you haven’t before. You’re on my turf, cockroach, and you know what happens to trespassers.”
Without warning, Azroth shot a fireball into Riddick’s face, making the young man leap back in pain. He quickly aimed more fire at the goons sitting on his limbs. Azroth bolted to his feet once he was free and headed to the canal that divided the city. A sharp pain struck him below the shoulder on his left side, and he stumbled. The feet tearing after him urged Azroth to keep running.
“I will kill you when you come back! I know you can’t keep away from this place, and we’ll be waiting.”
Riddick’s voice chased Azroth all the way to the canal. A few extra goons were stationed on his usual route, forcing him to take a longer way home. By the time he make it back to his territory, a sticky warmth seeped down his back. Riddick must have thrown his knife, hitting Azroth in the side. If he hadn’t half blinded them, he’d likely be drawing his final breath by now.
Once he was back in the safety of the dilapidated homes surrounding the Haggis, Azroth slowed.
“Fen!” Ariel’s angry voice called from above him. “Where have you been?”
Azroth quickly pulled the cloak closer around himself. He didn’t want Ariel to see the knife wound, at least not yet.
“I’ve been out for a walk. What’s up?” Azroth called back, trying to keep his voice light.
“Get up here now. The Vixens are here.” Ariel sounded nervous.
Azroth blanched. The Vixens never made personal visits. He took the treacherous stairs two at a time and met Ariel at the door. Her glare deepened as she took in his rumpled appearance.
“Why are you covered in dirt if you went for a walk?” she asked shrewdly.
Azroth ran a hand through his hair and dislodged large chunks of mud onto Ariel. She glowered and slapped his back. He supposed she did it to dislodge the great clot of mud attached to his cloak, or maybe she just wanted to hit him. Whatever the case, Azroth cringed when her hand landed overtop of the knife wound.
Ariel’s eyes narrowed as she inspected it further. “I just nicked this cloak. Why is there a massive hole in it already?”
Ariel pressed her hand into the hole. Azroth grabbed her hand to keep her from prying further, but her fingertips came back with blood.
“Fen,” she said in a dangerous tone. “You promised me you wouldn’t go back. Riddick nearly killed you last time.”
“We’ll talk about where I have or have not been after the Vixens leave,” Azroth said, his hand on the doorknob.
“I’ll make sure that wound festers if you lie to me again,” she said and followed him inside.
Azroth entered the cramped living space and found the Vixens sitting on the low couch looking haughty. The sisters inspected him as he drew closer. Narissa’s blond hair hung like silk down her back, while her sister, Heleena, watched Azroth between the straight curtains of her dark hair.
“Good evening, Fen,” Heleena said.
Heleena’s azure eyes were alight with a frosty interest. The last time he’d stood before the sisters, he’d brought them a huge emerald medallion he’d stolen from the silversmith’s shop.
He’d passed by the desperate woman trying to save her farm from creditors by selling her family’s last treasure to the greedy silversmith. Azroth had almost kept the emerald medallion with silver vines wrapping around the gem for himself. The moment it came in contact with his skin it flared to life. If the kids of the Haggis hadn’t all caught the fever and needed medicine, he’d still have it.
Narissa skipped the pleasantries and got to business. “Fen, we come here with a job for you. One with a high enough payoff, you lot won’t have to work for a year.”
Azroth gave his full attention to Narissa. “What is the job?”
Narissa crossed her legs and leaned forward. “I’m told you have a penchant for cathedrals.”
Azroth shot a glance at Ariel, who refused to look at him. “I admire the architecture, yes.”
“Do you admire the one currently under construction in the north sector?”
“I’ve visited it from time to time.” Azroth had a sinking feeling he wasn’t going to like this.
Narissa gave a satisfied smile. “Two nights from now, the wagon carrying a jewel called the ‘Sapphire Star’ will deliver it to the cathedral in north end.”
Azroth clenched his jaw. Riddick would slaughter him if he crossed over again that soon.
“We want you to steal it for us,” Heleena said. Her frosty eyes were alight with desire.
Azroth’s face morphed into a mask of indifference to hide the turmoil inside. How could he steal from the people who’d just offered him a home and an apprenticeship? Though the thought of doing work that built rather than destroyed was enticing.
“And what happens if I refuse?” Azroth said casually. His mind searched desperately for any way out of this.
“We’ll kill you and make Ariel go in your place,” Narissa said, flicking a finger in Ariel’s direction, watching his reaction.
Azroth lowered his eyes. He’d never let Ariel take such a risk alone. She’d been too close to his heart for far too long and the Vixens knew that. He should have stayed away from the cathedral like Ariel had warned him so many times.
“Sounds like I have a gem to steal.”
Thank you for reading this week’s chapter in THE FIRE DRAKE. If you’ve loved this story so far, please consider donating. Every little bit helps me to keep bringing clean, exciting stories to you as my reader.
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