Things passed by in a blur during the market. He needed Brewster to nudge him a few times to keep on task, and he thanked the fiery demons when Marjorie finally sold her last round of cheese for the day. Brewster kept up a nonstop chatter about everything he’d learned from the butcher that day and Azroth got by with only cursory nods.
“So, what happened last night?” Brewster asked, jarring Azroth back to the present. “Ariel came back without you, saying you’d been discovered by Riddick. What was he doing in that house anyway?”
Azroth cuffed Brewster hard around the ears. “Keep your mouth shut until we get home, will you?”
The last thing they needed was for a passing peacekeeper to hear about a break-in. The gang had kept themselves out of trouble for the past five years. He didn’t want to start now.
Brewster rubbed his ears ruefully. “OK. I won’t talk.” He didn’t say one more word the rest of the walk.
With Brewster finally silent, Azroth allowed his aching mind to wander. That is, until his gaze landed on a new shipment of silver the metalsmith’s forge had received.Several delicate chains and swords with silver filigree in their handles hung on display to attract passersby. 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 from him.
Azroth had tried to apprentice with the metalsmiths 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 in front of the shop for him to land on.
Since then, they’d often found their inventory shorter than when they’d gone to bed. 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.
When he and Brewster arrived at the Haggis, the boy picked up the conversation. “So can you tell me now what happened?”
Azroth sighed and related the whole fiasco, including how he ended up at the cathedral and why he was wearing the oversized coat that morning when they met at the market.
“I thought you smelled a little off today,” Brewster said with a grin. “How was the water?”
“As foul as it smells, but I can’t complain too much. It did save my life. Riddick would never allow himself to stink on purpose.” Azroth quirked his lips into a winning smile. “Not that he doesn’t stink enough already.”
Brewster laughed at this, but it didn’t last long. He blinked rapidly as the corners of his mouth turned down. “Riddick really carved his initials into the face of that old man? Doesn’t he know Gabe would never do that?”
“Gabe wouldn’t have killed the old man in the first place,” Azroth said wearily. “But the fact that I was there and they saw me, I’ll have to be careful for the next few days. I have to make sure I’m always in the stand with Marjorie. That way when the Peacekeepers start asking questions, Marjorie can provide me with an alibi.”
“Do you still have the medallion?” Brewster asked.
“No, I dropped that thing off at one of their Dens before I entered the market. I didn’t want to risk losing it while I was there.” Azroth’s headache was coming on stronger now, and the remaining stench from his dive into the river wasn’t helping. “Listen Brewster, take my basket up to the young ones. I’ve got to get cleaned up. I’ll see you later.”
Brewster took the baskets and walked up the stairs while Azroth went to find their bathhouse and a change of clothes. Once clean, he made his way up to the apartment and caught the smell of ham frying in the kitchen.
“Has Ariel come back yet?” he asked one of the newer street kids, Gil.
The younger boy shook his head, bringing with it the faint lingering scent of sewers where he’d lived prior to coming to the Haggis. “She hasn’t returned from a meeting with the Vixens today.”
Azroth suppressed a shudder, hiding it beneath his veneer of indifference. He still couldn’t fathom why Ariel wanted to join the group of women who ran the black markets across all of Lambswe. They were cruel, unyielding, and enjoyed toying with their prey until one day an unfortunate soul who crossed them or failed to finish an assignment wound up in the river or dumped in a back ally where no one but the crows would care to find them.
Gil held up a finger. “She did asked me to remind you not to do anything stupid while she’s away. She isn’t here to protect your back.”
“She wasn’t there to protect my back last night either,” he said more to himself.
He nabbed a piece of ham, a green apple and a mini loaf of cinnamon bread, then slipped back outside and climbed up to the roof. He found an empty hammock and flung himself into the fabric. He was asleep before he could take another bite.
Azroth’s feet were pointed down the broad thoroughfare that lead to North Lambswell. He wrapped his coat tighter around his shoulders, and pulled his hood low, senses alert. He stuck to the shadows as he walked. With the last rays of light slipping over the city walls, the cathedral came into view.
He’d tried for several days, but the sense that Wesley’s ghost had stood next to him as he stood in front of the cathedral made him want to come back despite the risks. So he’d returned every night for the past three weeks trying to find the ghost again. Plus, the stone structure was so fascinating he couldn’t help but climb around every block and inspect the masonry. He’d even come during the day after helping Marjorie occasionally and chatted with the workers about what they were doing, which many were willing to do. Besides, these days, Ariel was too busy with the Vixens to spend time with him anyway.
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 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.” He couldn’t wait to get his own look at the gem.
The monolith stood resolute as Azroth admired the cream-colored stone. It boasted of tall spires, 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 at night, 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 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.
Not 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 until Azroth, who bore the mark of the Fire Drake.
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 Ramforth 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 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 only needed to reset one pane because it slipped from its place. He shimmied down the ladder, and 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. He touched the scar that now 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 on the banks of the river.
Once he felt his way to the hidden staircase and made two turns, Azroth allowed a tiny flame to light up his palm. Six stories later, Azroth entered the attic and extinguished his light. Moonbeams filtered through the open holes where windows would go.
He strode over to a window, taking in the sleeping city. 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. But no one left the Haggis and no one moved on from Lambswell. Especially not a thieving street kid. No. His destiny was to die young from a knife wound or join up with the army when they came recruiting and die young on the battlefield. 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.
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.
He’d sprained his ankle landing on the hard earth. Then he was left to avoid Riddick’s slum rats while hobbling around like a beggar. He’d just got back the full use of his legs in the past two days, and wasn’t eager to try again.
“Don’t chance it,” the man said, eyeing him. “I’m a much better shot than our guards. Plus, they thought you’d broken your leg the last time you tried that route. But it must not have been that bad if you’re here again.”
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. However, they also tell me you don’t 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.
“Why do you keep coming back?” the man demanded.
“I think it’s a beautiful building,” Azroth said, stepping away from the window. He wasn’t about to tell these people that every time he came he felt closer to Wesley.
“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—
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 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. Especially ones who ruin jobs for me.”
Azroth shot a swift glance at the couple. If Riddick came in here, there’d be little he 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. “You don’t need to go out there. They’ll get you too.”
“If I don’t, Riddick really will set fire to this place. I don’t want to be the reason this beautiful building doesn’t get 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 push every though of the redheaded woman away. Her scent, the tone of her voice, and the way her arms protected him from the demons of his nightmares. Yet, this woman, who looked nothing like Imogen except in her bearing, brought everything back with such painful clarity that he forced 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.
“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 you’ve got a natural skill with the stone,” the man said. “It hard to train someone who doen’t have a knack for it.”
“That and you seem to be a decent sort of boy and we could use the help,” the woman said.
Azroth shook his head in disgust. “If you only knew what I’ve done––”
The man cut across him. “Give up the streets, and we can provide you with a home and work that doesn’t include dealing with the gangs.”
“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. Light chases away the monsters that lurk in the shadows.” Words he’d so often spoken to the young ones when they woke with nightmares.
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!” a victorious voice shouted to his left.
Azroth sprinted forward, but an arm swung, catching him in the middle and throwing him onto the rubble strewn ground. Wiry hands clamped down on his throat. He thrashed as his lungs struggled to recover from the shock of the impact. He needed air, and it refused to move in or out. Spots swam in his vision, and he was afraid he’d die there on the ground with Phillip’s fat face shining down at him.
“I’ve warned you to stay away,” Riddick said, pulling out his knife and sauntering toward Azroth. He signaled Phillip to release him.
“I’m not stealing from your side,” Azroth rasped once he found his voice.
“You may not have stolen from me tonight, but you still owe me a medallion.”
“The medallion is gone. I already sold it.”
Riddick grabbed Azroth’s vest and pulled him to his knees. “Then I’ll take it out of your sorry hide. I’m sure someone will pay for your parts.”
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 standing around them and jumped to his feet. Within minutes he was hurtling over the river 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 long way home. By the time he made 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?”
He quickly pulled his coat closer around himself. Ariel couldn’t 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 sisters 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 coat, or maybe she just wanted to hit him. Whatever the case, Azroth cringed when her hand landed on top of the knife wound.
Ariel’s eyes narrowed as she inspected it further. “I just nicked this coat. Why is there a massive hole in it already?”
Ariel pressed her hand into the hole. Azroth grabbed her arm to keep her from prying further, but her fingertips were already coated 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,” 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 handed over the green medallion they’d requested. The magic of that emerald gem lingered in his fingers for days, forcing away his Firespark. Instead it made green light dance on his skin. He wondered what they’d done with it.
Narissa skipped the pleasantries and got to business. “Fen, you’ve been our most reliable thief for the past several years. Your pilering of the emerald medallion a few weeks ago was proof that you could get in and out of a place almost without being seen and even in a tough scrap you still come through. We wish to reward you.”
“What is this reward?” Every one of his senses prickled. The Vixens did that to him. Dangerous foxes ready to slaughter the unsuspecting chicken.
“We have a new assignment for you. One that if you choose to accept, it will set you up for years to come. We’ve got a buyer who’s willing to pay a king’s ransom for what we want you to steal. One that has the potential for you to get yourself and every other resident of the Haggis out of the slums.”
Azroth gave his full attention to Narissa. “What is the job?”
The woman 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 before,” he said, opting for vagueness. Providing the Vixens with too much information only gave them leverage to use against you later.
Narissa gave a satisfied smile. “Two nights from now, the wagon carrying a jewel called the ‘Sapphire Star’ will be delivered to the cathedral.”
“We want you to steal it for us,” Heleena said. Her frosty eyes were filled with desire.
Azroth clenched his jaw. Riddick would slaughter him if he crossed over again that soon. But the repercussions for refusing the job could have far-reaching consequences. Not just for him, but for the young ones as well, which he was pleased were nowhere in sight. He hoped Brewster had taken them to one of the other hideouts.
He morphed his face into a mask of indifference. He couldn’t allow the sisters to see how vulnerable he was right now. If they did, they’d press their every advantage. The couple at the cathedral had offered him an apprenticeship. Something he’d been dying to obtain for years. They were opening a door that would allow him to get off the streets.
“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. “She and Gabe are the next best thieves after you, of course.
Azroth lowered his eyes, forcing his hands to stay loose and his jaw relaxed. Though it did nothing for the glint in his eye.
“You’d risk losing your newest recruit?” Azroth asked, barely keeping his voice civil. The sisters grinned predatorily.
He’d never let Ariel take such a risk alone, and the sisters knew that. That girl had his only love since he’d arrived in Lambswell, though she’d refused to marry him, claiming they were too young and would die too young to make it worth it. Did the Vixens know that too?
With Ariel in their clutches, they likely knew far more than he did now. Risking a glance at Ariel’s parchment white face, he nodded.
“Sounds like I have a gem to steal.”
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