Book One – Behind The Vale
By: Brian D. Anderson
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and should not be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First Published Longfire Press, March 2018
Cover Illustration Gene Mollica Studios
Copyright © 2018 Brian D. Anderson
Drake swirled the pale brown liquid around in his glass and then placed it on the bar. Why did he even bother? Nasty stuff. Tasted like vomit. Hell, it didn’t even get him drunk…it hadn’t been able to for a long time now. The raucous laughter and inebriated voices at his back made him all too aware of this fact. The low-life dregs of Vale. No one else would even consider coming to a dive like this. Still, dregs or not, at least they were capable of having a good time. Which was more than he could say for himself.
From the ceiling hung dozens of pairs of boots, all of them ripped off the feet of unruly patrons who had chosen to take their fun a bit too far, which was really saying something in a regular rough house like this. These days boots were hard to come by; good ones, anyway. In truth, they were probably the only things in the place worth stealing. Not that anyone was stupid enough to try. Mack would have his shotgun out from beneath the counter before you could touch a single bootlace.
The thrumming music crackling from a speaker on the wall darkened Drake’s mood even further. It was an old tune from way back in his father’s days. He couldn’t recall the title, just hearing it playing over and over on the vibraplayer in his dad’s home office.
“You drinking or not?” asked Mack, settling his elbow on the other side of the bar. The scowl on his face said clearly that this was not a friendly enquiry.
“What do you care?”
“This place is for paying customers, hawker.”
Mack sniffed. “Sure you did. An hour ago.”
Drake picked up his glass and very deliberately poured the contents onto the floor. “Okay. So give me another.”
“You’re a real piece of work. You know that?” Mack reached back and snatched a bottle from the shelf. “Why do you come here?”
Good question. But not one for which Drake had a good answer. He shrugged. “Maybe I like the atmosphere.”
After shoving the replenished glass in front of him, Mack wandered off to the other end of the bar, muttering insults under his breath as he went. Drake picked up the whiskey and held it to his nose. For a brief moment, he actually considered drinking it. But good judgment quickly got the better of him, and he put it back down again. It might not get him drunk, but it sure as hell could make him sick.
He was still dwelling on this when the door swung open and a small mouse of a man in a well-tailored blue pinstripe suit slunk in. The nervous look on his narrow face as he clutched a leather case tightly under his arm was more than enough to earn him attention from some of the rougher characters present. After crossing over to an empty table near the far wall he took a seat, his eyes darting constantly back and forth.
“Dumbass,” muttered Drake.
Guys like that came in from time to time. He was probably on some job that had taken him outside of Troi; and from the look of things, this was his first time so far away from the city. Now he was seeking to make the most of it. Out here in the provinces, secure in the knowledge that their wives couldn’t possibly know what they were up to, many of them came to places such as this looking to live out some depraved fantasy they would never dream of being involved with back home. Mostly they were on the lookout for cheap women or drugs. Whatever it was, all they usually found was a whole lot of trouble.
A sultry beauty with auburn hair and olive skin sidled up beside Drake. Skin-tight black leather pants and a tank top accentuated her curves nicely. Flashing a seductive smile, she reached over and picked up Drake’s glass.
“It’s not like you were going to drink it, hawker,” she told him in a playful tone. After downing the whiskey in a single gulp, she motioned for Mack to bring her another.
He gave her a sideways look. “I’m busy, Allie. What do you want?”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “You, my dear. For the longest time.”
“Stop messing around. I don’t have time for your games today.”
“I know, sweetie. That’s why I’m here.” She took the glass from Mack and waited until Drake slid some money across the bar before drinking it. “Your latest client is a real piece of crap. You know that?”
Drake sat up straight on his bar stool. “What do you mean?”
“He killed the poor guy you caught for him. Shot him twice in the head, right in front of the sheriff’s deputy. Didn’t say a damn word. Just shot him and walked off, as cool as you like.”
Drake shrugged. “So what?”
“Because you’re next. That’s so what.”
Drake spun his stool around and ran his eyes over the bar’s patrons. Regulars, mostly. A local vash dealer called Lenny had approached the newcomer and was whispering into his ear. The man quickly shook his head and gave a timid smile. He wasn’t here for drugs, apparently.
He returned his attention to Allie. “I’m next? Why would you say that?”
“Because I hear things, sweetie. You charge too much. And the word is that your client has no intention of paying up.”
“He’ll pay,” Drake assured her. He reached down and touched the handle of his P37 resting in the holster on his belt. “One way or another, he’ll pay.”
“Don’t be a moron,” she told him. “From what I hear, this guy is hooked up with some powerful people. Troians. And not the workers, either – the top dwellers. The real Troians.”
Allie shook her head in wonder at his casual response. “You really must have a death wish. Anyway, just so you know, I hear that he’s hired someone to take you out. Someone very special. So just watch your back, okay?”
Drake waved for Mack to bring her another drink. “I’ll do that. Thanks, Allie.”
A slender girl in a low-cut red dress and high heels was now sitting in the newcomer’s lap. But once again he began shaking his head, all the time still clutching nervously at his case. So, he’s not here for women either. And if the girl was the wrong gender, the guy was most definitely in the wrong bar. Even so, he wasn’t showing any inclination to leave.
Allie gave him a light kiss on his cheek and sauntered off. Drake moved his gaze over to the door. If Allie was right – and she usually was – then he had come here for nothing. His client had known full well with whom he was dealing. Drake had a reputation for ruthless efficiency; that’s why he had been hired in the first place. Now Allie was telling him someone special had been hired to take him out. That could only mean one thing: a mage.
He didn’t like mages. Wielding magic made them unbearably arrogant. He had worked with them in the past, but found them to be far too dependent on spells and glamour. Take all that away, and they were usually no better than the scrawny little …
Drake glanced over to the table where the newcomer had been sitting. It was now empty. Instinctively, his hand shot to his gun. He slowly stood and moved toward the door, eyes scanning every part of the room. Where the hell was he?
A soft glow near a wooden support off to his left answered the question, and he dove hard to the floor just in time. A streak of blue fire shot from the assassin’s hands, striking the side of the bar and exploding with an ear-splitting crack. Tiny flames rained down on Drake’s back, burning holes in his jacket and searing his skin. Keeping low, he headed rapidly for the front door.
Elsewhere, customers were screaming and slamming into one another as they scrambled away from the assassin, most of them crowding toward the rear exit. The mousy little man was now grinning viciously, clearly reveling in the fear and panic he was causing.
Still on the move, Drake unholstered his gun. But with his torso facing away and at an awkward angle, he knew hitting his target would be nothing short of a miracle. He squeezed the trigger anyway. A ball of white light burst from the barrel to a mark just to his would-be killer’s left. It was close enough. The light exploded with a chest-thumping thud, and the sheer force of the blast lifted the assassin three feet into the air and threw him almost completely across the room. With glass and broken furniture still slamming into the walls and ceiling, Drake rose to one knee to see flickers of light dancing around the assassin’s body. A protection cloak, he thought. Clever…
He channeled his power into the P37, the heat in his chest growing more acute as he did so. But Drake had long since learned to ignore this. The more powerful the shot, the more pain was required to fire it. Right now the mage was dazed, but far from out of the fight. As if to confirm this, a thin stream of mana spewed forth from his opponent’s fingertips, striking Drake in the left leg. Gritting his teeth against this new source of pain, he pressed his shoulder to the door and tumbled outside.
A few more seconds; that was all he needed. His shot was almost ready now. It was probably strong enough to penetrate the cloak, but it would be better not to take any chances. The parking lot was rapidly filling up with those bar patrons who had made it through the back door. Engines coughed into life, sputtering and popping like fireworks from cheap mana fuel and poor maintenance as the vehicles labored their way toward the street. Some were so slow, those inside would have been better off on foot.
Drake pushed himself up and limped toward a row of trashcans near the corner of the lot. Smoke was already rising from the building. Magical flame didn’t usually spread very much, but old timbers caught easily.
A figure stepped out of the door, and the man’s posture told him that the assassin had recovered faster than he had hoped. Drake flicked a switch just above the trigger and fired. A thin line of blue light streaked out and formed a circular pattern before striking the mage squarely in the right shoulder. The force sent him staggering a few steps back inside the bar. But he emerged a second later, arms outstretched and face twisted with rage.
Drake smiled. This one was powerful…but inexperienced; otherwise, he would have recognized what had hit him. And he sure as hell would have chosen a different spell with which to counter. As it was, just as Drake reached the cans, the assassin let loose a blast of highly focused mana, its blue light dazzling and radiating pure magic. It was a spell designed to utterly annihilate a foe. Not that it ever reached its intended target. The beam came to a sudden stop halfway between the pair before it split in much the same manner that Drake’s earlier shot had and then headed directly back to the source. This time, though, the pattern was much more widespread, with the intention of surrounding and trapping its target rather than actually striking it. As feral screams flew from the encased assassin’s mouth, Drake gave a tight smile. The mirror spells the P37 could fire were always useful against mages. Particularly inexperienced ones who allowed anger to get the better of them.
With the mage waving his arms wildly about, vainly trying to regain some of his power, Drake took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. The hiss of the P37 was accompanied by a recoil so powerful it felt as if it might rip his arm clean off, and the pain in his chest was nearly unbearable. The impact of the fist-sized projectile completely collapsed the building, piling fresh kindling onto the now raging fire. When the dust had settled, the body of the mage was little more than a smoking pile of ash and bone.
Drake dropped to his knees, clutching his chest. After holstering his weapon, he allowed himself to slump the rest of the way to the ground, then rolled onto his back. Mack will be furious, he thought. Assuming he’s still alive. As for Allie, he had already caught a glimpse of her in the car lot and knew she had made it out safely. She was a survivor. And in spite of her suggestive dress and flirtatious manner, she was not one of the prostitutes who practically lived in the bar.
By now, all of the cars were gone, and the roaring of the flames was the only sound to be heard. With the pain in Drake’s chest receding, he felt anger rise up. The client should have just paid him. Now he would have to do something he hated – kill for free. If the man had been able to seek out and hire a mage to come after him, he was probably every bit as connected as Allie had suggested. Drake would need to move fast, before word of this spread and the client learned that his assassin’s attempt had failed.
The crackle of tires on gravel had him reaching for his weapon again. He looked up, then collapsed back down, grumbling curses. The creak of a car door and the crunch of boots made him almost willing to risk facing a hangman’s noose and put a hole straight through the man approaching. Almost...but not quite.
“What the hell, hawker?” The sheriff’s gravelly voice raked at his ears.
“Leave me alone, Barnaby,” he growled. “This isn’t the time.”
Needless to say, his request was ignored. “Have you lost your mind?” the lawman demanded. “You just burned down Mack’s bar. You think you’re special or something? I’m taking you in.”
“You know damn well I didn’t burn it down. Blasted it down, maybe. But it was already on fire anyway, so who cares?” He rolled up onto his elbow. “I heard about what happened to my runner. And if you think I’m just gonna let you take me away so the same thing can happen to me...” He began to chuckle mirthlessly.
The sheriff huffed. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Sure you don’t.” Drake pushed himself fully to his feet.
Barnaby was a bloated worm of a man, with narrow eyes and a balding head. The uniform he wore was old, tattered, and roughly patched after having been let out a dozen or more times. He was holding a revolver in his hand, though up until now he’d had the good sense not to point it.
Drake nodded at the weapon. “What do you think you’re going to do with that? Piss me off?”
The caliber wasn’t nearly powerful enough to do anything more than hurt like hell. Not that he wanted to put up with that either. Barnaby was one of the few people in the area who knew about his ‘protection.’ He’d had a report sent from Troi informing the sheriff of this the very first week Drake had showed up in the area. Things between the two men had changed from that moment on. These days Barnaby did all he could to avoid so much as a passing conversation. Which meant his being here now was almost certainly coerced.
Nonetheless, he continued to bluster. “Look here, Drake. You can either come with me until we can sort this out, or you can start running. And I can promise that the bounty they’ll put on you will be big enough to call out every damn hawker in Vale.”
Drake could see that the man was scared. He craned his neck and looked up at the overcast sky. “You know something, Barnaby? I was really hoping this would be a nice day. But look – it’s cloudy as all hell.”
“Are you going to come without a fuss or not?” The tremor in his tone was obvious.
Drake blew out a hard breath and met the sheriff’s eyes directly. “You’re not getting my weapon. Is that clear? And I’ll take my own car.”
He shifted on his feet. “You know that’s not how this works.”
“I’ll tell you what I do know, Barnaby. I know you’re about as honest as a starving vash addict. And you know damn well who sent that mage after me.”
Barnaby opened his mouth to speak, but Drake’s hand shot up to silence him. “I don’t mind that you’re a sorry waste of a man. Hell, I don’t even mind that you’re corrupt. I mean, who isn’t on the take in some way or another around here? But I do mind walking into your station unarmed like a sheep to the slaughter. I mind that a lot. So, here’s your choices. I can get in my car and drive down to your office with my weapon tucked snug and secure at my side. Or I can simply blow your head off right now and take my chances that no one will care about a bloated pig of a man who finally got what was coming to him.”
Large drops of sweat were beading up on Barnaby’s brow, and his eyes darted to Drake’s gun. “Fine. We’ll do it your way. But I promise that you’ll regret this, hawker.”
After putting away his gun, he got back in his car. Drake watched him go and then crossed the lot to the far corner where his own vehicle was parked. At the brief touch of his hand on a small mana pad, the lock clicked and the door opened.
The scent of leather and oil that greeted him as he settled inside brought a smile to his lips. He placed his index finger briefly on a pad beside the steering wheel and leaned back in the seat. In response, the engine hummed almost inaudibly into life. It was a true one of a kind. He took a long breath while listening to its even rhythm for a few seconds. Perfection. Even the black paint was custom, sparkling with flakes of mana-infused silver. The car’s sleek lines and sloped rear end made it look like it could actually take flight. And with what was under the hood…no one would ever stand a chance of catching her.
“Are you ready, Cal?” he asked, looking at the console. A yellow light blinked rapidly as if in response; a check of the fuel gauge then drew a groan. He had needed this payday. Quality mana fuel was rare…and expensive.
He glanced over his shoulder to where the sheriff was still waiting. A sinking feeling dug at the pit of his stomach. This was not going to end well. That much he could count on.
Drake lowered the car window and shut off the vibraplayer. Right now, he preferred to listen to the hum of the engine and the roar of the wind. He had been tempted to put the top down but decided against it. Should things take a bad turn, it might be safer to have it up. Besides, it wasn’t all that hot today – a benefit of the overcast sky.
A pity the scenery wasn’t better, though. Mile after mile of crumbling buildings and shabby houses covered the landscape. Everything was gray and dull; made more obvious by the mana streams flowing overhead in a seemingly infinite array of colors. The few shops scattered about were packed with hungry people scrambling to get what little food was available – though it was never enough. Children either darted about the streets pushing along carts filled with scrap metal to sell to the recycling trucks or dug through heaps of stinking refuse hoping desperately to find something of value that could be traded for food or money.
Yes, Aurora was about as poor a province as there was in Vale. Not that the others were much better; but Aurora was particularly sickly and run-down. Here, even the newer buildings were covered with a depressing coat of muck and grime, conveying all too clearly the depth of hopelessness felt by locals. Yet despite all this hardship and poverty, for a hawker at least, it was the best place to find business.
Runners often hid in the very worst areas, believing that they could blend in more successfully amongst the filth. But more often than not, it was the exact opposite. The inhabitants were invariably suspicious of strangers and kept almost exclusively to themselves. The last thing they wanted was someone with a bounty on their head bringing trouble to their door. They might not have had much, but what they did have, they were determined to keep. Half of the time, all Drake brought back was the runner’s body after he had been killed by the locals for stealing food or clothes.
Lately, though, he’d been thinking it was about time to move on. He was becoming far too recognizable in Aurora, making it increasingly tricky to get in and out of places without attracting attention. Which in turn was making his job a damn sight harder than it needed to be.
A sigh slipped out. A former royal guard turned hawker was bound to attract extra attention anyway, wherever he went. And it wasn’t like he could hide the fact. The local law enforcement was usually the first to find him out. Anyone new was automatically checked out with the archives in Troi, and the people there were not known for keeping such information confidential. Then there was his P37. If the archives didn’t give him away, his weapon certainly would. Only members of the royal guard carried a P37. You couldn’t buy one; each was custom made by its owner, and the secret of its construction was never divulged. He damn sure wasn’t about to give his up just to blend in with the crowd, not when it had saved his hide so many times. No. Once he was finished with this latest mess, he would move on…again.
Barnaby kept them going at a fast click – showing off the fact that his car also had some muscle under the hood. Several times he blew by slower vehicles, sounding his siren as he passed and scaring the hell out of them. The third time he did this, he very nearly ran an old man completely off the road. Drake decided it was time to show the pudgy bastard a thing or two about speed.
“You ready, Cal?” he asked, a wry grin creeping up from the corners of his mouth. “Let’s do it.” He slammed his foot down on the accelerator and was instantly pressed hard back against the seat.
Barnaby must have seen him coming because he sped up and swerved left, attempting to cut him off. But Cal was way too fast. Drake pushed her to over one hundred and fifty before easing up. By then, Barnaby was just a tiny dot in the mirror. Drake laughed at the thought of the sheriff cursing and screaming that his prisoner had decided to run after all. Just to rub it in even further, he made sure that he was completely out of sight by taking a few hard turns at a speed he knew was sure to send Barnaby’s car skidding off the road.
The sheriff’s office was near to Vale’s reservoir, an area where virtually all of what little commerce and infrastructure the town possessed could be found. Here, the mana strings could be seen glistening like a spider’s web in the morning dew across the sky. For most people, this signified a place where power was abundant and life was good. But for Drake, it was just a harsh reminder of the past.
As he approached the sheriff’s office, he saw a long red van parked directly outside. On the side of the van, the lion sigil of the royal court immediately caught his eye.
“What the hell are they doing here?” Drake muttered.
He pulled next to the van and waited for Barnaby to catch up. This was no disgraced noble forced to serve the king as a lowly bureaucrat in some dilapidated outpost; someone like that would be driving a vehicle that was old and dented. This van was brand new. Fresh from the factory.
Maybe they’re not here about me, he thought. Yeah, right. And maybe I’m a high mage.
He went over in his mind what they could possibly want with a disgraced guard who’d been exiled to the outer provinces. Nothing he would like, that was for sure. The only other time Troi had been interested in him was when they had wanted him to kill a civilian activist who’d been causing trouble up north. But Drake was no assassin. Sure, he killed. Quite often, in fact. But only when he couldn’t bring a runner back alive.
Some hawkers didn’t care. They would simply kill the poor bastard and move on rather than take the extra time and effort needed to capture someone alive. Dead bodies don’t try to escape. Half the money, but also half the time and aggravation. That was not Drake’s way. He had never been a cold-blooded murderer – regardless of what the royal court claimed.
Barnaby eventually screeched into the lot and parked directly behind Cal, clearly a tactic to block him in. Drake chuckled at the man’s clumsy attempt to assert his authority. If he wanted to leave, this sure as hell wouldn’t stop him. Cal could tear through the sheriff’s car like it was made from wet paper. The mana-infused silver in the paintwork was more than just decoration. Drake got out and started toward the office entrance, the chirp of Cal’s auto-lock sounding from behind after a few steps.
Barnaby hurried over to join him, puffing and wheezing as he took hold of Drake by the arm. Drake shot him a warning glance.
“We don’t want this to get rough, do we?” Barnaby asked. From the nervous expression on his face it was clear that this was not intended as a threat. “At least do me a favor and close your coat.”
Drake chuckled and nodded his compliance. “You got it, boss.” He buttoned his coat to cover his weapon, though the bulge this created would still make it obvious to almost anyone that he was armed. “Lead on.”
Barnaby opened the door and stepped inside, pulling Drake along with him, though taking care to use the very minimum of pressure.
The cool air felt nice, and though the outside of the building was in desperate need of a good scrubbing, the interior was clean and orderly. Chairs were lined up against the wall, and soft music was coming from a speaker overhead. The desk clerk, a thin, pale-faced man with round spectacles, was sitting behind a glass window at the rear of the lobby. To his right was a door leading to the rest of the station. He looked up at Drake, frowning.
“Still waiting for that promotion, Milton?” Drake asked with a smile.
The clerk ignored his jibe and switched his attention to the sheriff. “He’s waiting in the interrogation room,” he said. “And he’s getting impatient.”
“You plan to tell me what someone from the royal court is doing here?” Drake asked Barnaby.
“You think they tell me anything?” he replied, opening the door leading to the back.
Lights from overhead buzzed and crackled noisily as they passed along the hallway. The wall on one side was lined with holopics of past kings and the present ruler – though at some point these had been taken down and never put back in the correct order of reign. Whoever the court had sent was sure to have noticed this and would likely be giving Barnaby a severe reprimand. The black and white tile floor was clean, but had numerous cracks and blemishes and was badly in need of repair. In spite of this, overall it wasn’t such a bad place to spend your working hours when compared to what was usually found in Aurora.
They continued down the hall and through a small conference room where three doors lined the wall to their left. The middle door was slightly ajar, and a waft of smoke drifted out, accompanied by the scent of tobacco. Tobacco was expensive, so this meant that whoever was inside was either very rich or very powerful. Most likely both. Drake hadn’t had a good cigar in years, and the aroma was making old, almost-forgotten cravings return.
Barnaby opened the door fully and gestured for Drake to wait. From his present position, he could see only a pair of boots propped up on a metal table. Military boots. This just keeps getting better and better, he thought ironically.
“You can go,” said a familiar voice. “I’ll speak to him alone.”
Without a word, Barnaby turned and started back toward the hallway door. Drake could see the fear in his eyes. And there was a good reason for it being there. He could feel his rage building as he continued staring at the boots.
“Do come in, Drake. Hasn’t anyone taught you that it is rude to keep old friends waiting?”
The way he rolled the letter R and exaggerated each syllable only served to make Drake even angrier. Pretending to be a top dweller; that’s all it was. Yet the man inside the interrogation room was as far removed as possible from one of the elites. More like the very lowest of bottom feeders, in Drake’s eyes.
He unbuttoned his jacket and pushed the door fully open. There, dressed in his finest white uniform complete with medals and ribbons, was Xavier Mortimer, captain of the royal guard. His black curls were oiled and pushed back in the fashion of the nobility, though contradicting this he had the angular features and deep-set brown eyes of the working class, which was why he tended to keep his collar turned up high. A cigar hung between a set of perfect teeth as he gave Drake a welcoming smile.
“It is so good to see you again, my old friend,” Xavier said, removing his feet from the table. “How long has it been? Eight years?”
“Nine.” Drake took a chair on the opposite side. “Why are you here?”
Xavier sighed. “I see that life amongst the rabble has robbed you of your courtesy.”
“And I see that you are still trying to forget that your father was a cook.”
Though Xavier’s expression didn’t change, Drake noticed a tiny twitch in the corner of his eye that made him suppress a satisfied grin.
“Ah, yes. Dear old Dad. He still asks about you when I visit. It broke his heart when you were convicted. He still thinks you were falsely accused, poor fellow. He just can’t imagine the great Drake Sharazi could ever have become a…murderer.”
“I’m losing patience, Xavier. Get to the point.”
Xavier clicked his tongue. “Mind your temper. We don’t want this to become unpleasant, do we?”
Drake sneered. “Oh, I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
It was an invitation Drake knew for certain would be accepted. Both men reached to their side simultaneously. In a blur of motion, two P37’s were drawn, each trained and ready to fire.
Xavier’s smile never faltered. “You’ve lost your touch, old friend. I think this harsh environment is definitely starting to take its toll.”
“I’m still fast enough to blow your damn head off.”
Even as he spoke, Drake knew this to be a false claim. They had drawn their weapons virtually in chorus. Had they pulled their triggers, both of them would now be dead. But it had not always been like that. Had he really gotten slower? Or had Xavier gotten faster? Probably a little bit of both, he suspected.
Xavier holstered his weapon, then waited for Drake to do the same before continuing. “I have a message for you, one that I think you will want to hear. So perhaps you should stop acting like a child for a moment.”
“I’m not doing any of your damn dirty work,” Drake snapped back. “So unless you’ve come with a royal apology, you have nothing to say that I want to hear.”
“A royal apology?” Xavier chuckled softly. “Now that would be a cause for celebration, I imagine. But alas, no. Still, you might be pleased to know that King Nedar still thinks of you fondly. So fondly, in fact, that he has sent me to deliver a personal message.”
The hair on the back of Drake’s neck prickled and his heartbeat increased significantly. A message from the king. Though he had long since learned to accept what had happened to him, in reflective moments he still dreamed about returning home. Not that it did any good. As the years passed, any hope of actually achieving this had all but disappeared. Home had become nothing more than a memory. And yet now, was it possible that this message was about to rekindle his long-abandoned dream?
“If you need a moment,” said Xavier, obviously amused by the effect his words were having. “I can only imagine what life must have been like for you, living in filth for all these years. And then here I come, bringing a glimmer of hope into your tragic tale.”
Xavier’s smug expression quickly had Drake regaining his composure. “I’m fine,” he responded. “I was just amazed that the captain of the royal guard would be reduced to the status of messenger boy. When I held the position, the king would never have thought to send me on such a mundane task.”
“His Royal Majesty wanted to be sure you understood the importance of the matter,” Xavier explained, though a bit too eagerly.
“Then why don’t you get on with it?”
“He wants me to convey his deepest regret over how events transpired. And that he truly wishes circumstances had been different.” He rolled the cigar between his fingers absently, watching the smoke rise from the tip.
“Is that all?”
“Of course not. He also commands you to come to Troi and report to the magistrate.”
When Xavier did not continue, Drake leaned in, forcing him to make eye contact. “Nothing else?”
“What did you expect? A full pardon and a welcome home parade? Or perhaps reinstatement as captain of the royal guard? Feel fortunate that the king thinks of you at all. Your sovereign has a duty for you to perform. That should be enough.”
The faint hope that had been rising inside Drake began to collapse, leaving behind only fury and resentment. Straightening his back, he forced himself to keep his expression impassive. “Please thank His Royal Majesty for his considerate message and kind words. Tell him I’m afraid I am otherwise occupied at the moment.”
Xavier rubbed his cheek and groaned. “I thought you might be difficult. I even told the king as much. But he assured me that you would come.”
Drake rose from his chair. “Then he was mistaken. And for once, you were right.” He began to leave.
“They’ve taken Prince Salazar,” Xavier said quickly. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you that until you reached Troi. And you can’t say a word to anyone. But that’s why you’ve been summoned.”
Drake halted, his hand resting on the doorknob. “Who has taken him?”
“We don’t know. But we think they’re from the outer provinces. That’s why we need you.”
Now things were different. Drake could hear the sincerity bleeding into Xavier’s haughty tone. He drew several deep breaths before finally speaking. “Very well. Tell the king I’ll be there.”
He opened the door and strode out.
“Don’t you want to ask?” Xavier called after him. “I know you do. Are you not even the least bit curious about her?”
Drake continued walking, pretending not to hear him. Barnaby was waiting just outside in the hallway, sniffing a cigar obviously given to him by Xavier – no doubt the bribe for bringing him in. He snatched the cigar from the man’s hand as he passed by and shoved it into his pocket.
“Hey, that’s mine,” Barnaby shouted.
Drake called over his shoulder, “Not anymore it isn’t. Now move your ass and get that heap of a car out of my way before I ram it.”
Kicking open the lobby door, he quit the station. Barnaby followed close behind, hurrying as fast as his ample girth would allow. When the way was clear, Drake fired his engine and pulled back, stopping for a moment when he was parallel to the sheriff.
“Tell the guy who sent the mage after me that I’ll be seeing him real soon.”
Barnaby shot him a hate-filled look but said nothing.
As Drake pulled out onto the road, he tried to calm himself. The thought of returning home was exciting, but also terrifying. He was an exile. Everyone in Troi knew his name, and unless the king proclaimed him innocent, he was still a criminal in their eyes: a murderer. He would always be thought of as one. And something told him that a royal pardon wasn’t forthcoming. They needed him; that was the beginning and the end of it. Once he had served his purpose, he would be cast out again. Even so, it was impossible to extinguish the tiny flame of hope that had been rekindled.
Slamming the accelerator to the floor, he focused his thoughts on Salazar. How could anyone have kidnapped the prince? For sure, whoever had been able to accomplish such a feat was not a foe to be taken lightly. Only the king himself had more protection. To overcome the numerous security measures preventing such an abduction would have taken large measures of skill and daring, not to mention considerable resources. On the plus side, those same resources would be very difficult for the kidnappers to conceal. In a land starved for the basic necessities, to a trained eye they would stand out like a beacon in the dark.
It was easy to understand why the king would send for him. Who better for the task than a hawker possessing the power of the royal guard? And one with a personal interest in the prince’s safe return. He pushed Cal past one hundred and sixty, turning the landscape into a wretched blur. Frames of a picture he hated to see. But it had been his life for nine long years.
Are you not even the least bit curious about her? Xavier’s words plagued him. Of course he was. How could he not be? But it didn’t matter. By now he was nothing but a long-forgotten memory to her. He had to accept that. There were some hopes he could never allow to surface.
Some feelings would tear him apart, no matter how much time had passed.
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