The crowns dog, p.8
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       The Crown's Dog, p.8

           Elise Kova
 
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  So, Jax kept his eyes focused on the merchant stalls and narrow storefronts for the spark of silver in the sun, or the shine of gemstones. He stopped at one narrow table, a portly and cheerful-looking man barely fitting behind it. The shine of his bald head was almost as bright as some of his beads and baubles.

  “What can I do you for, sir?” He motioned to his wares. “Something for your lady or lord, perhaps? Or would you be shopping for yourself?”

  Jax looked over the trinkets. He did not have Erion’s eye for the stuff. He couldn’t tell a true stone from a fraud without trying to smash it, which most shopkeeps frowned upon.

  “Actually, I’m looking for some information.” Jax stuck with the direct approach.

  “Oh?”

  “I’m looking for information on a young woman named Renalee.” He intentionally kept things worded vaguely to see what the man came up with. “I heard she worked in a jewelry shop along Ridge Road. Didn’t know if she ever came down here to sell their wares.”

  The man gave a mighty guffaw. “Jewelry shop on Ridge Road? You couldn’t possibly mean The Jeweled Crest, could you?”

  “That’s the one.”

  “No, sir, afraid her name’s not familiar.” The man shook his head. “Not surprising. The Jeweled Crest fancies itself the prestige jeweler for Oparium; they’d never think to lessen themselves by opening a stand on Market Street.” He chuckled again. “I’m afraid if you’re needing them, you’ll have to travel up cliffside to the storefront proper. Good luck dealing with their powdered noses and holier-than-thou attitudes.”

  Jax gave a small grin. “I’m fairly used to holier-than-thou.” If he could survive the Imperial Palace and the nicer sections of Solarin, on top of the Imperial Court, he could survive almost anything, anywhere, when it came to stomaching pompous attitudes. “Thank you for your help.”

  “Sorry I can’t help you find your lass,” the man said as Jax moved to depart.

  Just when Jax was about to clarify that she was not “his lass,” a cry cut over the white noise of the market.

  “Thief!”

  All commerce ceased, and everyone looked around frantically. A block down from where Jax stood, a hooded figure barreled from a tucked-away table where a man pointed and continued to shout, “Thief!”

  Jax began to run.

  Civilians parted, avoiding the burglar, but fellow merchants and sailors ran toward the hooded thief under an unspoken code. With arms as thick as tree branches, wielding daggers and other makeshift weapons, they pursued the thief to aid their fellow hawkers. The hooded figure stopped, spinning in place.

  A hand shot out and magic crackled through the air. Ice shot up from the ground in three-pointed spears—tridents. Most of the merchants stumbled away in time to avoid being impaled. One was not so lucky.

  He wailed, clutching at the trident point that speared through his side.

  Jax clapped his hands together. Magic surged from one palm to the next, flowing up his forearms and charging through his veins. He skidded to a stop, drawing his focus.

  Ice turned to steam as fire hissed through it. Jax kept the blast short and focused so that none of the nearby merchants or observers would be caught in the flames. Screams echoed in the back of his mind, but Jax kept his eyes wide open and his grin wide, pushing them away as violently as he could.

  He wouldn’t burn them.

  Water covered the ground where ice once stood. But no one moved. Only Jax was running again, pushing through the stunned crowd and leaping over the merchants still nursing their wounds. He nearly slipped on the water—lamenting he hadn’t kept the fire for a flash longer to evaporate it—but he kept his feet.

  “Sorcerers!” someone shrieked.

  “Sorcerers in the market!”

  “Sorcerers stealing our goods!”

  “I’m trying to help you!” Jax shouted over his shoulder. But he didn’t stay and argue. The thief was already at the far end of the alley, rounding the corner at speed.

  He panted, stretching his long legs in wide strides. He was taller than the burglar and could tell he was gaining the second he rounded the corner. The hooded figure glanced back long enough for Jax to see a mask with a trident stitched on it spread over the thief’s mouth.

  “Stop!” Jax shouted. “Stop, or I will use force.”

  He wondered if he imagined a cackle at the proclamation.

  The thief threw a hand over his shoulder. Jax felt a ripple of magic as the air before him distorted. He pushed fire outward instinctively. The ice trident vaporized to a harmless spear that he swatted away, just in the knick of time.

  Jax gave pursuit again, this time on the offense. He tensed his fingers, pushing his magic outward and just ahead of the fleeing criminal. A wall of fire flared up before him, bright and hot, enough that it should be able to singe and slow his quarry, but not enough to immolate him on the spot. He wanted to catch the man alive for questioning—Jax’s gut told him it was what Baldair would want.

  The thief leapt through the flames, encased in an orb of water that hissed to steam, fogging the alley. This was no half-rate sorcerer or market pickpocket, Jax realized grimly. This was a trained soldier.

  Jax raised his hand, clearing the steam with a wave and tongues of fire. The alley burned hot; sweat rolled down his neck with frustration. The thief was nowhere to be seen, and any potential for wet footprints had evaporated.

  He continued to run along the alley, but every offshoot either led back to Market Street or toward the sheer cliff that encircled the southern half of the city. Dead ends or back into plain sight had been the hooded person’s only options. The thief must have given him the slip back into the masses of people who lined the lower shopping district.

  Jax grunted in frustration, clenching his fists. A tendril of flame shot from his hand, singeing a nearby wall. He’d lost.

  11. JAX

  JAX DRAGGED HIS feet back to the market where he’d first seen the thief. He’d spent another good many minutes searching down each of the alleyways, turning over boxes, peering into nooks and crannies, but the thief was nowhere to be found. It was as if he had disappeared like… like…

  Like a ghost, his mind finished treacherously.

  Ghosts were nothing more than fabrication and, despite all the stories he’d been told, Jax had yet to hear of the kind that fought with flesh and blood and sorcery. The person he had encountered in the alleyway—man or woman—was real. Jax couldn’t believe otherwise. Their magic had goose-bumped his flesh and impaled one of the merchants earlier; it was not the act of a specter from another realm.

  The wounded merchant was nowhere to be found when Jax returned to Market Street, but his blood still stained the cobblestones where he had fallen. Jax wondered how long it would stay, if someone would clean it, or if it would be a reminder of the market’s blight until the next rainstorm.

  With a sigh, Jax relaxed his magical channel, relinquishing the tight hold he kept on his magic and the remaining tension of the fight. He doubted the burglar would strike again in the same day, especially not after getting away scot-free. The only thing left to hunt now was the motive behind the theft.

  “You, sorcerer—” Jax turned to the man stomping up to him. “What happened with the thief?” He drew a blade, holding it to Jax’s throat. “An accomplice of yours?”

  Jax sighed softly. As if he’d care if the man slit his throat. He’d long since lost all reason to live. A grin crept out with his next exhale of breath, and Jax studied the man’s face.

  “Are you and all your muscles afraid of a little sorcerer like me?”

  The merchant said nothing, his scowl deepening.

  “You should be. After all, I could burn you alive right now with a twitch of my fingers or a mere thought.” Jax watched as the man’s resolve faltered, his dagger quivering slightly, the point brushing against the knot in his neck. “But no, usually the person chasing after the thief, trying to stop them, is not an accomplice.”

&nbs
p; The man sheathed his dagger with a begrudging huff. “See that you don’t make trouble.”

  “Never my intent,” Jax assured, despite his track record. “I’m just here on official business for the prince.”

  “For the prince?”

  “Investigating a murder.” Jax looked around the large merchant, no doubt sculpted from years of hauling goods on the sea. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

  He pushed around the man, rubbing away the dot of blood that had formed at his neck. On the other side of the street was the salesman who’d been victimized by the thief. The young man packed up his table in a defeated slump.

  “What did they get, sir?” Jax asked.

  “Name’s Rowin,” the man supplied willingly. “And not much, besides my most valuable item.” He cursed under his breath.

  “Which was?” Jax asked when the man didn’t elaborate.

  He paused, the blanket he’d been holding half-folded in his hands. “Why do you care? You don’t look like a member of the city guard.”

  “No, I’m not of the city guard. You could say I’m a guard of a different sort, however…” Jax still didn’t know what he was. In three long years, he had never seemed to work it out. He was owned by the crown. He was a criminal, nothing more than a dog on a leash. Yet Baldair treated him as a comrade, and Erion had yet to discard his foolish loyalty. “I report to Prince Baldair.”

  The man froze. If he had only halted before, this was a complete seizure of every function. A shadow passed over his face, darkening his eyes to glower at Jax.

  “Prince Baldair should just leave this town already. He brings bad luck.”

  “Gird your tongue; that is your Imperial Prince you speak of,” Jax cautioned. He was taken aback by the man’s caustic tone.

  Rowin begrudged the truth, saying nothing.

  “Why do you hold such ire for your prince?” Jax asked, forcing gentleness in an attempt to diffuse the tension.

  He sighed heavily, hanging his head. “If it wasn’t for his presence, for his foolish party, my Renalee…”

  “Renalee?” Jax pushed with conviction. “Her death is what I am investigating. You knew her?”

  “Knew her? I was going to ask her to be my wife before gods and man within the fortnight, if it weren’t for that party!”

  Jax heard an all-too-familiar hurt in the man’s loss. “What happened?”

  “When she took the job at the Imperial Manor, she grew distant. I knew she had taken another lover. I have no doubt he was there that night, that it was an excuse for her to go and have a tryst with him. I asked and asked, but she wouldn’t confess it to me.” The man slammed his fist into the narrow table he stood behind. “She gave me an earring she supposedly bought, to prove her love. I wore one of the matched pair, she

  the other. But she never told me where she got the money to afford it.”

  Rowin shook his head grimly.

  “You think she got it from this other lover?”

  “Who else?” He had a look in his eye that nearly begged Jax for an answer. “How else would she get the money? Sir, we were not rich. Comfortable, yes. But there would be no other way she could afford a Western ruby that size. If she had taken to whoring, I would’ve no doubt heard word from the other dock hands.”

  “So today, the thief—you were trying to sell the earring for coin? Erase the memory and the hurt?” Jax recognized the emotion. He tried to withdraw from the situation, to keep an objective perspective on something that could quickly feel much too personal. A smile tugged at Jax’s mouth, small enough that Rowin wouldn’t notice, large enough to keep the memories at bay.

  “Yes, along with her other remaining effects in my possession. A lot of good it did me.” He stuffed the last of his goods into the bag he carried, and Jax knew their conversation was nearing an end. “Lost the only thing of value and wasted the rental cost of this table.”

  Jax reached into his coin purse, pulling out a few gold pieces. He dropped them onto the table, their clinking sound drawing the man’s full attention. Southern blue eyes drifted up to Jax’s as Rowin silently asked after his intentions.

  “You don’t want those things. I’ll take them all. This should be enough, shouldn’t it?” Three gold coins should set the man up comfortably for a month.

  Rowin was skeptical of the exchange. “There’s nothing in this bag worth that much. Why do you want it so badly?”

  “I told you, I’m trying to find her killer. Something in there may be of use to me. I don’t have the time to track you down again should those possessions become relevant.” And Jax wouldn’t want to. He would do it, because if such a thing came to pass, Baldair would no doubt ask it of him. But he had no interest in continually prodding the open wound of a man who had lost his lover in more ways than one. “It’s not like you want any of it, right?”

  Rowin’s hands went slack on the leather drawstrings of the satchel. His face softened briefly as the haze of memories clouded between them. Jax waited silently, allowing the moment to pass. Anger burned away the pleasant fog that had momentarily subdued the man. He practically threw the bag at Jax, snatching the gold off the table with a mumble.

  “Good riddance.”

  Jax watched Rowin as he retreated in a storm of hurt. He knew there was nothing he could say that would ease the man’s pain. It would be insulting to try, Jax reminded himself. Rowin stomped around the side of the table, not even looking back once. Jax’s fingers indented the leather of the bag.

  “It won’t work,” he called after the other man. Rowin stopped and turned, looking back with questioning, fearful eyes. He knew Jax had seen him—seen with eyes that knew a similar sort of pain. There was something deep and terrible connecting them that could not be explained, a shared horror that both would give anything to relinquish. “You can sell it all. But the weight won’t lessen.”

  Rowin stared at him, passersby traversing the market who could not be bothered to care for the exchange the only thing breaking their gaze. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said quietly, turned, and left.

  Jax departed in the opposite direction, hoping he never had to interact with the heartbroken lover ever again.

  12. ERION

  THE COCK AND Crow.

  Just the name of Oparium’s brewery set Erion’s stomach to turning. He was all too familiar now with the worn wood grain of the door handle, shaped like one of the birds of its namesake; the smell of musty ale; and the haze of the dim lighting that hung in the smoke-filled air.

  He had never been one for bars. Even when he was socially deemed “mature enough” to frequent them, Erion much preferred the upscale parlors of the estates of the nearby lords of the Waste. Southern alcohol was soft compared to the throat-burning liquor of the West, and he missed the lazy afternoons spent sipping the amber colored cocktails by a synthetic oasis in the burning sun of the desert.

  By tastes, in both booze and atmosphere, Erion should have been the prince between them. Baldair sat easily at the bar, his lose shirt as relaxed a fit as its wearer’s posture. He talked easily with the men two stools away, laughing and carrying on as though he hadn’t a care in the world.

  His elder brother may be the sorcerer, but Baldair had his own sort of magic in the way he viewed the world, the way he managed to smile without a care, even when the odds were stacked against him. The prince opened himself up in a way Erion was always advised against doing and welcomed anyone willing into his fold. It was a manner of living that Erion had never seen in nobility, and it was one he wondered if he’d ever have the courage to embody himself.

  “I actually cannot conceive how you’re drinking that.” Erion sat heavily in the empty stool on the side of Baldair farther from the people he’d been conversing with. “Just the sight of

  it turns my stomach.” His body was still revolting from their revelries.

  “Hair of the dog.” Baldair raised his glass and sipped with a grin.

  “So you’ve told me.
Erion shook his head. Southerners had the worst expressions.

  “What’ll it be, hun?” Maleese, the barkeep, asked from behind the counter, where she busied her hands wiping down glasses. It was a lull in the day, after lunch but not before quitting time. The perfect point for a bartender to catch up on routine cleaning.

  “Just a ginger fizz, please.” He hoped the bubbles combined with the sharpness of the ginger would quell his protesting stomach.

  “Thought our Southern ale was ‘basically water’.” She smirked, reminding Erion of the opinions he voiced a little too loudly on one of the first nights they’d spent in the tavern. This was what happened when he spent time with Baldair—his tongue became far too loose and ran away from him.

  “I’m never living that down, am I?” Erion mumbled.

  “Not with Maleese.” Baldair snickered into his glass.

  “Jokes aside.” The barkeep set Erion’s blissfully non-alcoholic drink on the bar before him. “I don’t know how this one does it.”

  “Does what?” Baldair didn’t miss a beat. “Have such insatiable charm?”

  Maleese snorted and didn’t even dignify the question with a response. She accepted payment from the two men Baldair had been speaking with as they closed down their tab. The sailors gave a respectful nod and left.

  “You never did manage to—how did you put it?—wear her down,” Erion observed over a sip of his drink, glancing toward the bartender. The tang of ginger was refreshing, its smell overpowering any nausea that had been welling up in him.

  “Perhaps next summer.”

  Erion thought about it a long moment. He didn’t know if he wanted to come back next summer, not after how this season was shaping up. Baldair might expand his horizons, but he needed a bit of a break from the insanity. “Or maybe we could spend next summer at my parents’ estate.” Baldair would be on better behavior as a guest, Erion hoped. At the very least, his mother would be ecstatic at the notion of having one of the Imperial princes in her home.

  “You are trying to kill me with the heat.”

 
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