Juxxa was swimming in the pool at the center of the courtyard. A deep aquifer fed the rushing fountain, technically making it a spring. The little toy dog waited at the edge of the stone.
The pool was large enough for twenty men to easily wash at the same time and Juxxa was thankful to be completely alone. He grimaced as he put his head under the rushing icy water. He scrubbed the fine sand out of his short black curls before submerging himself completely in the refreshing pool.
While in Ozaros, Juxxa had allowed his hair to grow halfway down his back. When he swam, it flowed with the water. Minah’s wet hair used to spread into long flat strips. Sometimes their hair got tangled together when they went swimming, making them laugh. Minah would cling to his shoulders when she got tired and he would be her buoy.
That memory was coming again.
Juxxa was teaching Minah to swim the day Sallith’s forces came. There was a metallic glare in the distance, then several more. Men in heavily-plated tunics came up the hill on over-trained bulky horses.
Ozaros was a strange foreign land to the soldiers and Juxxa had a reputation as a dragon-slayer. This was fiction. No human, Ozarian, or anything else could kill a healthy dragon. Juxxa had come across a dying dragon that seemed relieved to be put out of its misery, and the tale grew beyond his control.
A few of Sallith’s soldiers were wearing very light armor. Without warning they leapt off their mounts into the water and seized Minah. They told Juxxa that their King needed a worthy champion for his new arena, demanding he accompany them hundreds of miles to the northernmost settlement in the Gorung Desert. A knife to Minah’s throat was all it took to assure Juxxa’s cooperation.
He hated the dry desert air, as well as having to wear sandals to avoid burning his feet on the hot roadways. With every step he wanted to turn around and carve them up with their own swords. He wouldn’t even need a sword. He could tear them up with his bare hands, rip out their jaws by the teeth, or unleash fire into the roofs of their mouths until flames poured from their noses and eyes. When truly angered, Juxxa’s hands had no limits. That was the difference between the humans of Ozaros and the spoiled ones from other lands. But Juxxa couldn't risk eight-year-old Minah’s safety, so he traveled with the soldiers to the paranoid isolationist city of Mirek. That was almost a year ago. Now Minah was concealed somewhere under the watch of royal agents.
Once I’ve fought my hundred matches and get Minah to safety, the King and his elite guards will feel my brutality. The humans here think they’re strong because they live in a desert. None of them truly are, not even the mages and guardsmen. But I’m a fool. I should’ve known that I was cursed when I saw that dragon. The Seers do not favor those who see dragons. They do not favor this place either. So many believe in nothing, and the few who do believe worship a foolish deity of kindness and sacrifice.
A glimmer startled him. Juxxa stepped out of the pool, water pouring off of his nude form.
“Headsplitter!” The King raised his ringed hands.
“Yes, my Lord?”
“You won’t believe what happened yesterday before your match.” Sallith’s black leather armor glinted as he descended the stairs. “I caught another thief in my treasury. I shot the bitch straight through the leg. Best shot I’ve made in a while.”
“Again? The last time you mentioned a thief I suggested you should permanently seal that window.”
“I had it filled with stones.” Sallith walked to the feast table. He helped himself to sun-dried black grapes from a bowl of water. “By the following morning the work had been undone. It looked as though the workers hadn’t even touched it. Then I ordered it to be filled again and had it watched constantly, day and night. Can you guess what happened?”
Juxxa stared at the fountain, waiting for the King to go on.
“The window appeared on the other side of the tower!”
“What?” Juxxa took a few steps toward the King. “How could that be?”
“My mages studied the room. They tell me...” The King paused to recollect what he’d been told—and to pop a strawberry into his mouth. “They tell me it’s some kind of uncommon, powerful spell. They predict that it’s affecting the whole tower, if not the whole palace. It creates a secret window somewhere on a periphery, but never in plain sight.”
“It sounds like subterfuge,” said Juxxa. I’m sure that’s what the insect wants to hear.
“Whatever it is, or was, for, I’m now aware of some strange plan against me, so it hasn’t gained traction. It’s even given me a chance to hunt thieves.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“You’re a mage. Have you ever heard of secret magic entrances that keep reappearing?”
“I am afraid not, Your Majesty.” Juxxa was telling the truth.
“Well, it was worth a try, I suppose. Good match yesterday,” said the King over his shoulder as he started up the stairs.
“How many more?”
The King stopped and turned around. “That was your ninetieth. Ten more. I keep my promises.”
“And then you will tell me where she is?”
“I promise. And she’ll be there when you arrive, perfectly fine,” said the King as he walked up the stairs. The back of his cuirass was riveted with many layers of thick drake leather, the outline of the scales barely visible.
I’ll have that armor, soon. Juxxa went to a distant corner of the stone courtyard. He took the scroll out of the pocket of his armor and studied it more closely. Augustus the trader reads Elven.
Juxxa wasn’t meant to interact with anyone outside the Colosseum, but Augustus was known to leave the city for many months at a time. Juxxa knew he would be wise to find the man as soon as possible.
When the yolk of sun dipped just below the Palace and Colosseum, Juxxa concealed himself under a hooded cloak and headed out. He wound his way through the curved alleys, heading for Street Nine East.
Juxxa turned into the last alley. A group of teenagers was hanging around between the buildings.
One of them stepped in Juxxa’s way and grinned. “I want every coin you’ve got.”
Juxxa backhanded him into a brick wall and the other young ruffians fled crying and cursing. He pinned the boy through the temple with a needle-like dagger, brutally wrenched the blade out of his head, and kept walking as the boy made a light choking noise and fell to the ground.
Juxxa stepped into Street Nine and saw a watchtower of a man. Augustus was freakishly tall with flawless posture. His forehead was heavy and square, but a mismatch for his thin jaw. He wore a long blue robe with white seams that marked him as a member of the Merchants’ Alliance—or robbers by another name thought some. Juxxa lowered his hood to reveal himself to his friend.
“Well,” Augustus said, “just the man I was hoping to see!”
“I need this translated.” Juxxa held out the scroll. “It’s in Elven.”
“Something is preoccupying me that I’d like you to handle. Should you agree, I’ll gladly translate that when you’re done.”
Juxxa sighed and put the parchment away. “I can’t do anything that could expose who I am.”
“No fear of that, I swear. I just need you to bring a woman on the west end of the street to me.” The man’s eyes looked somewhat upward as he lustfully envisioned something pleasurable.
“Your jokes are terrible.” Augustus smiled. “I’d sooner trust you than my thugs to bring her back unharmed. I don’t want her spoiled.”
“Who and where?”
“Her name is Claudia, Claudia Nierra. She lives in the Street Nine West Apartments. Her home is the first on the left. Look for a torch palm. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing.” Juxxa’s couldn’t believe it. Augustus wanted the woman whose name was in the scroll. What will he say when he sees her name? “I’ll retrieve her now.”