The Palace swarmed with guards and servants following the orders of ten different council heads. With the King suddenly gone and the city held under siege, any intruder or ambiguous figure would likely be torn apart by guards in skymetal armor.
Juxxa followed the two Ven Quari elves around the side wall of interlocking obsidian bricks. A hole appeared in the stone like the strange window to Sallith’s treasure room. In fact, the stone was disappearing and reappearing to cause a doorway-shaped hole to slide along the wall. It stayed in place for them, and the elves waved him along from the other side. Warily, he passed through.
The idea that he really was going to see his daughter was strangely anticlimactic. Somewhere in the simpler parts of his mind, he feared that they were showing him her corpse.
“Now,” Juxxa said, “where is she?”
“We must pass a few more walls. Then you will see her,” one of the elves said. Though all their voices were high, this one sounded female.
The hole in the stone passed them along the ground like a dog chasing a stick, startling Juxxa. It was as fast as the reflected light of a moving lens, and always stayed on pace with them.
“What sort of magic is this?” Juxxa asked as they traversed the narrow western courtyard.
“It is the power of Cloverra, our one true ancestor,” the other elf said, brushing his hand over an ornamental fern. He was particularly short. “Stone and flesh meld to the will of the eternal.”
“So that Fey thing is your god? Seems a little vulnerable.”
“We have a far more grounded understanding of our deities,” he said. “Mainly because ours exist.”
Within the dark halls of the palace, the Ozarian and elves continued their course, as the hole followed them and opened the most direct way. They were staying at ground level, not even the height of the throne room, which told Juxxa that Minah must have been in some kind of dungeon.
Then they passed into a much wider room, with the soft, desert-colored carpet and furnishings of a guest bedroom. The right wall emanated a blazing heat that somehow did not encourage sweat or overly warm the enclosed space. Just beyond, he could spot a complex rectangular mechanism, likely for a secret door that would take days to solve directly.
Juxxa realized that he was looking through a Torrach barrier. His were the common, mostly invisible kind, but this was the greatest extent of the fourth rank’s power: a barrier that could not be destroyed and would never fade. It wavered and warped the candlelight of the room like the clearest water imaginable. By the laws of magic, only a strong spell from one rank higher could ever hope to dispel such a barricade, and Juxxa didn’t even know what the fifth rank was.
He turned and focused on the ornate couch, a table lined with puzzles, and a bed with enclosed, turquoise drapes. Behind them, he could see the bent, seated figure of someone bigger and older than Minah. She was now close to eleven years old, but the figure behind the drapes seemed too tall. The person was moving as he silently approached, but barely.
“Who’s there?” a woman’s voice said. The bowstring rattled as she tightened her shot.
Then Juxxa remembered the toy. He reached into his pocket and tossed the steel dog through the fabric.
The toy had pushed a light gap between the two sheets, and between them he saw a young, pale woman in a knee-length black stola. She had made a simple long bow, apparently with a carved portion of the bed and some thin strands of silk. With more thin pieces whittled down, she had headless arrows like the one she was lowering. Then the bow fell from her hands as she cupped the little trinket, letting it slide back and forth on the carved amethyst wheels.
“You’re back!” she jumped into his arms. Her hair was now rusted brown, like Selephere’s, instead of his pitch black. “Oh tell me this isn’t another dream!”
“Are you alright?” He held her, squeezing almost as hard as she did. It was an all new feeling, carrying a daughter this heavy.
“Fine. They kept me comfortable here, told me about your matches. You haven’t hit one hundred already, have you?”
“No, I got to you early,” he said, smiling. “This city is taken.”
“By elves?” Minah looked past her father to the shining, white-haired figures.
“Yes. But come on. The further I get you from this room, the more real this will feel.”
“You’re right,” she said, as he set her down. She hugged him well above his ribs. “Let’s go home.”
Once they were back outside and in the palace courtyard, the female elf spoke up.
“The entryway spell has been cast to follow you around the city’s limits. Just walk right out of the city, like the walls mean nothing to you.” She motioned ahead, encouraging Juxxa to go near the high palace wall. Sure enough, the emptiness in the obsidian moved itself to make an archway ahead of him, revealing the lavish, painted homes of Street One. It unsettled him that this spell had been cast on him without his knowledge, but just like having his leg healed, there was no reason to complain.
“Do not try to leave through the main city gate, as our people are sieging it. Now that our business is done, I only ask that you return home, and quickly.”
“What’s happening?” Minah asked them. For a captive, she did not seem sheepish or afraid of the outside, much to his relief.
“The King has fled, and his city now belongs to the Ven Quari,” the shorter elf said, arms outstretched. “Not one of the citizens shall escape.”
“You’re exterminating them?” she asked.
“To simplify the matter, yes,” the taller one said. “Though their lives are not truly being taken, nor will it be in vain.”
“I don’t really understand it either. It’s been a strange day,” Juxxa said to her. He turned to the elves. “We will leave. I just want to know one thing.”
“Were you involved in her capture?”
“I assure you, no. We needed a strong fighter in the arena, who could hurt a Chosen. That would cause Cloverra to warp here and begin our trap. But we responded to opportunity. We used the champion the King obtained by himself, and commandeered the spectacle match plan Claudia developed.”
“Fair enough. I don’t say this often: thank you.” Juxxa turned away and Minah followed, struggling not to keep looking back at the elves as they passed through the wall.
With care and soft steps, father and daughter made it through the streets, passing into the lower numbers of the western end. It was tougher at first, as the elves were already hauling lavishly-dressed citizens in long lines of joined shackles. It seemed the elves were more than happy to start with those who lived most comfortably in Mirek’s xenophobic environment.
Dead ends were risky, so they headed for the front end of the city wall at Street Twenty, the poorest, largest, and outermost of Mirek’s concentric roads. Everyone was in their squished, simple adobe and straw huts, locked away, and the occasional platoon of white-armored elven soldiers were easy enough to spot and avoid.
Then they reached the piled granite stones of the main city wall, a curve that went in a circular route from one end of the Obsidian Mountains to the other. Each stone was nearly the size of the homes around them. Beyond this wall, half the height of the palace itself, were the sands of the Gorung Desert. It would not be easy traveling by foot, but together they could manage.
“This is it,” he said, focusing as an archway appeared. The street was lower than the dunes, and a soft ramp of sand gushed into the street.
“Wait!” someone said, and Juxxa readied the baton that used to be his arena weapon. It was a balding man in a nicely made but worn leather jerkin. “If you can, I beg you to let us escape the city!”
“I have no patience for this,” Juxxa said. “Come closer, and you die.”
“Please, if not me, then my wife and daughter…” he looked back, and sure enough two heads, one much higher than the other, peeked from around the adobe hut. “They will not follow you or burden you. Let them escape, please. We have almost two-hundred kinnitar—”
“Enough,” Minah said, shrugging. “Let’s just let them through. They’re taking people from the richer streets first anyway.”
Temples pulsing, Juxxa sighed and stepped away, making room for the man and his family to pass through the wall and into the sands, turned a plain, unnatural yellow by the unpleasant new sky color.
“Thank you very much, sir,” the little daughter said, and Juxxa had to look away.
“Alright, they’ve passed,” Juxxa said. “Let’s go.”
“Father,” Minah said, turned to the side.
“Just face the opening and walk straight through. You’ve done it already.”
“Father, what is waiting for us back home?” she eyed him, and he shoved his baton into a pocket.
“What is waiting? Our home!”
“We have no family but each other,” she said. “I know you struggled. I can’t imagine how much. But you did that to free me, not to return to Ozaros. Really, what is the hurry?”
“We’re not staying, Minah. I know being captured and reading stories might make this place seem more worthwhile than it is, but no one here is special.”
“We are in the poorest streets,” Minah said. “These people never had a chance, and we’ve been given such an easy way to help. In any other case, I would just go, but think about what we’d be turning away. Parents and children like us.”
“I care nothing for the place that took my daughter, nor for its people. They can all rot. Might turn this ground-up rock into soil.”
Minah grew stern. “These aren’t the kind of people who saw your matches. They’re the remnants of those who used to live where the Colosseum is now. They’re too poor to waste time watching bloodshed. They just want to avoid it.”
“Did you spend all your time in captivity reading?”
“A fair amount.” She stepped closer, revealing just how close to his eye level she had grown. “I know what I’m talking about. Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous that Sallith gets to go free somewhere while his innocent subjects pay. A true Ozarian chases a thief down and cuts off his hands.”
“Do I have to drag you through the hole?”
Just then, Minah jumped onto a wooden support beam jutting from the adobe and landed on the straw roof in a flash.
“Minah!” he whispered as angrily as possible.
“Do I have to go missing again?”
“Just get off the roof, please.”
Minah hopped down. “You do realize that with my way we have a much better chance of getting revenge on Sallith, right?”
He looked at the wall, and the sea of dunes reaching to the horizon. “If I lose you again—”
“That won’t happen.”
“You are no longer a bargaining captive, Minah. There’s no reason for anyone not to try and kill you.”
“I haven’t been wasting away in that room, you know. We’ll get some decent weapons and free people along the way. If that’s all we can do, then that’s all we’ll do. We’ll leave before the elves notice a thing.”
Minah walked away, running her steel dog figurine along her open palm. Juxxa followed, heightening his senses and watching the streets once more, as the hole behind them shrunk. He could hear it, like the clatter of a distant grindstone.
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