It was another disgustingly hot day in Mirek, a tenacious human oasis at the base of the bizarre Obsidian Mountains in the white sand of the Gorung Desert. The sun brought sweat out on the skin, only to fry it off immediately before it could cool any poor soul.
Claudia lived in Street Nine West. She’d spent her last kinnitar yesterday buying a hook and linen rope from Augustus, the trader of cheap wares in Street Nine East.
She was the last independent, uncorrupted attorney in all of Mirek—and she had no work. King Sallith made himself the beginning and end of all legal matters. As such, she reckoned he owed her for her hardship.
I may be a jurist driven to crime, but at least mine will be victimless.
Augustus had said it was there, and now she saw it: the light-colored granite tower on the palace wall, with one small open window near the top. She slipped a letter opener out of her belt and used it to cut the sleeves from her chemise. Then she tied her thick black hair back with one of them, slid the rope off her shoulder, and threw the hook up toward the stone gutter of the tower as hard as she could. When she was certain it would hold, she began climbing.
Her elbows ground against the stone, but sleeves would’ve just gotten in her way. The rope stung her fingers as she pulled with the last of her strength and hoisted herself onto the roof. Most women would have not been able to climb the rope, but Claudia’s legs were so exhausted that she welcomed the chance to use her arms.
Claudia sat back to catch her breath. She avoided looking down as it would’ve made her cry out. Her eyes followed the slanted roof up to its point.
There was a small ventilation window just above her. Claudia carefully stood up and opened it. She peeked inside. Troughs overflowing with shimmering treasures lined the circular room. She was already salivating. In and out as fast as I can. I just need to grab something light and valuable, get out, and sell it. Don’t... get... greedy!
She jerked the hook off the gutter and secured it in the open window. Claudia wrapped the rope around one arm, stepped through the small window, and began lowering herself into the tower. On her way down the cool stone wall she passed an oil lantern at least ten times her height. It had ten arm-wide wicks, each burning an illuminating red flame. When she got to the end of the rope she was about seven feet above the floor.
Claudia let go of the rope and plunged into a trough of crunchy black seashells in King Sallith’s treasury. The shells were probably some sort of currency in a far-off land. She hopped out of the container and walked the perimeter of the room. She needed to find something that she could easily sell. There were little amber-colored rocks and many shiny foreign coins, but nothing of value to Mirekian commoners.
She made her way to the middle of the circular room. It looked like a museum exhibit brimming with rarities, luxuries, and many unique things that seemed to be technological in nature. Claudia wasn’t sure what everything was, but she recognized a small cannon, an ancient iron axe, and a set of long, complex glass instruments.
There was a grand oak couch covered in sumptuous small down pillows with embroidered silk covers. If I sold even one of those pillows I could eat for two months. That’s enough time to bounce back from this. As she grabbed a pillow a door very near her clicked and squeaked open.
“Oh, no you don't!” shouted a man. “I think not!”
Claudia fled toward the trough of black shells. She heard the stretch and rattle of a bowstring and the glint of an arrowhead slipped into her vision. She dove sideways and rolled as the arrow shrieked by her and snapped against the wall.
She hopped into the trough and jumped up to grab the rope, the pillow clenched between her teeth. Claudia used her arms and legs to scramble up the wall as quickly as possible.
There was another heavy thud from the longbow. Claudia’s heart sank at the thought of the archer’s arrow piercing her body. Her rope seemed to drop an inch or so, and it suddenly felt unstable. She looked up. The rope was nearly severed just above her head. Almost halfway. Don’t think, just climb! She quickly reached above the shredded section of rope and resumed her desperate ascent.
“This is really quite exhilarating. I should do this more often,” said the man. “But we don’t want you falling too far. You may land on your head. Let me help you down.”
There was a swish before an arrow went halfway through Claudia’s right shoulder. She lost her grip. As she plummeted down, her only fear was landing on the arrow and aggravating the wound.
Claudia fell into the seashell trough again and they spilled everywhere, matching the black streaks in the marble floor. Fortunately, she managed to land mostly on her legs and torso. Blood was running down her arms, but the crushed shells weren’t as sharp as she imagined they would be. Nothing seemed to be broken, although a few joints felt tested.
The archer stepped into Claudia’s view. His face was concealed by a wrapping. She screamed as he pulled her to the floor by her right arm.
She didn’t scream because of her fear that the fall would exacerbate her injury. What mattered now was avoiding capture, and charges of trespassing and attempted thievery at the royal palace. Claudia knew how these things worked, especially for women.
She felt for the small letter opener in her belt. With it firmly clutched in her left hand, and a desperate grunt, she jumped to her feet. The archer’s longbow crashed against her fingers, sending the blade clattering across the floor and out of sight.
“Think you can steal my treasures, do you?” The man fired a very thin arrow with a flesh-piercing arrowhead point-blank into her leg.
The thing sliced diagonally through most of Claudia’s thigh. The agony was like a white sun blocking out all the blue in the sky. Claudia’s fingers curled into useless fists. She briefly forgot where she was and what was happening.
The archer removed the covering from his face. His long dark hair and intensely triangular nose were a strange match for his ocher-colored skin. It was Lord Sallith, the King of Mirek himself.
“Why?” Claudia wheezed.
“I grow restless on the throne. I miss the days of shooting animals.” Sallith was known as a very skilled archer before he went into politics. “You thieves have given me a chance to practice my skills.”
Thieves? Claudia wondered. Other people have done this? Does Augustus know?
“Now you know my secret.”
“Please, Your Majesty,” Claudia said, “I heard of the window by chance. I only intended to steal the least valuable thing here... so that I would have money for food.”
“Steal food from your own kind if you’re hungry.”
“I beg you, my Lord...” Pleading with this man whose rule brought her to starvation and desperation hurt almost as much as the arrows. “I am educated. I have potential.”
“There’s nothing worse than an ambitious criminal.”
“That is not what—”
“We could’ve had this conversation in my business apartments at the front of the palace.” The King removed another flesh-piercer from his quiver. “It’s too bad we didn’t meet on friendlier terms.” He smiled as he admired the artistry of the arrow before he nocked it. The King raised his longbow and aimed it between Claudia’s eyes.
A man in well-tailored guard armor charged in, his narrow great sword pointing straight up to the high roof. “Stop! My Lord, I humbly ask you to show this woman mercy.”
“Reginald.” The King coughed. “I’m surprised. All I expected of you was a prayer for the corpse.”
“Let me assume the blame and take her punishment.”
“Do not make demands of me.”
“I beg your pardon my Lord, but I must insist.”
The two men stared at each other. Claudia had no idea what was happening, but it seemed to be about more than her.
“Well, you are... or were, I suppose... my right-hand man. If I found you in the same circumstances I wouldn’t kill you. I would strip you of all titles and put you in Calceria for life.”
“Understood, my King.” Reginald winked at Claudia and dropped his sword without so much as a sigh.
Claudia was completely absorbed into the sight of this man, a mix of a square and serious head with a calm expression.
For some reason, Sallith looked relieved. “You, my dear, owe this man your life. Thank the Seers I’m willing to lose him.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Claudia saw a royal agent in rich vermilion silk enter the room. He threw a bolt of light at her, and in that moment her pain fizzled away. It was some kind of spell and she instantly fell asleep.