Readers Decide: Episode 1, Part 5 (conclusion!)

Heya! This is the conclusion to episode 1 in an ongoing, collaborative series I’m writing with my readers and fans. This episode introduces the thief, Lin. Along with the conclusion below, I smoothed the whole episode and released it as a free ebook to my reader group. If you’re interested in being part of the story and receiving the finished episodes, drop your email in the little form at the right :).

To catch you up, here are the previous installments.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

And now for the episode conclusion!

A whisper from the recesses of the alley, carried to her ears by her Edge, wakes Lin from her paralysis. The sound was too quiet for the others to hear, but if Lin doesn’t do something, her friends will be discovered soon enough.

The Jalakyrisi woman raises a questioning eyebrow as Lin scrambles for words. Given the fiery daggers the man’s eyes are throwing, she wouldn’t be surprised if her satchel caught fire.

Lin swallows and forces a nervous smile. “Sorry, ‘s just I never see’d sucha flowy getup before’d. Pretty.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman says with clipped accent. ”Could you repeat that?”

Lin clears her throat and drops her gaze. “Sorry, uh… highness. It’s me—my boglands speech. I—” She furrows her brow, pretending to struggle. “I’ve never see’d such nice…” She gestures at the woman’s ridiculous clothes. “Your dress is pretty.”

The woman’s smile lights her face. A sucker for flattery.

“What do you want?” the man says, not bothering to hide his irritation. Again, he glances at the satchel.

Lin clenches her jaw. Why didn’t she just examine the package earlier? No one from Veil had to know… The more she thinks about the circumstances, the more it seems Veil was setting her up. Otherwise, why look outside the organization for this job?

“I’m sorry…” Lin clears her throat. “I’m sorry, m’lord. The bogspeech makes me slow withen the polite words.”

His eyes narrow. Anger flows off his body. But when the woman glances his way, he quickly hides the emotion, twisting his lips into a condescending sneer. “I believe you were about to ask for directions. You seem lost.”

Lin nods, clutching fists like an eager servant. “I walkened to Hajinal all last week. Wanted to find work. But today I got too eager and walkened too far. Didn’t make it to the city before’d I got caughten out in the dark.”

“Do you need accommodations, then?” the woman asks.

Lin stares at the woman, wide-eyed. After a moment, she shakes her head as if awestruck. “’pologies, lady. I justen can’t help. Sucha fancy bird.” She turns to the man. “How’d you get aholden of this catch?”

His face darkens, but when the woman’s lilting laugh bubbles into the fog, he takes a deep breath and seems to clamp a lid on his rage.

The woman reaches long fingers and touches Lin’s shoulder. “There’s still such innocence in your country folk. It’s charming… something we lost long ago in the Spicelands. Small islands leave little room for mysteries between people. Except for the crags, I suppose. I hear that many of the monks who gather the spices have forgotten how to speak by the time they grow too old to climb and must rejoin society.”

The Veil man stares holes through Lin’s face. “A tip because you can’t be blamed for ignorance. Find a hole and wait for sunrise. If a protector finds you out here, being sent back to the bogs is the best you can hope for.”

“Why for?” Lin asks before casting them a conspiratorial smile. “And as for my question, I see’d you are avoiden the topic. No matter. I knowen a secret lovey when I’m spotten it.”

A muffled thud comes from the alley. Lin’s pulse roars in her ears. This isn’t working. As she grasps for words to distract the couple, a strange cold seeps into her lower legs. As Lin shakes her feet to dispel the sensation, the woman’s gaze drops, and she inhales sharply.

Thick fog blankets the street, nearly hiding the cobblestones. When the woman shuffles, the mist swirls and eddies. Another of Owell’s tricks? A faint clatter and the hiss of voices escapes the alley, but the sounds are muffled as if swallowed by the fog.

Lin licks her lips. She’s running short of ideas. As she draws breath to rattle off another inane comment in bogspeech, heavy footsteps fill the alley. Whoever is approaching is makes no attempt at stealth.

She turns, eyes widening in shock at the sight of a protector stepping onto the street.

Rotten corpse in a haystack! Lin backs away but collides with the woman. To Lin’s shock, rather than yelping in surprise or annoyance, the Jalakyrisi merchant lays an elegant hand on her shoulder and leans closer. Lin smells spices, damp linen and silk. And perfume. The scent of some sickly-sweet blossoms clings to the back of her throat.

“Come with me. Please.” The woman’s voice is the barest whisper.

What? Did Lin hear that correctly? As she tries to process this request, still staring at the approaching soldier, she notices splashes of darkness on the protector’s breastplate. Blood, black in the torchlight. Recognition smacks her like a day-old fish to the face. This isn’t a guard. It’s the wagon driver clad in the dead protector’s armor. Relief uncurls in her chest as she swallows and turns back to the others.

Lin’s jaw nearly drops. By some trick, the man seems utterly transformed. If Lin hadn’t been standing here the whole time, she wouldn’t believe it. Her Veil contact is no longer a scruffy rogue, all sinew and wrinkles. Instead, he’s an aging Atal gentleman, arrogant to the core. Dark clothing made for shadowy work now clearly looks like a suit coat and trousers that are just short of formal. Where suspicion lurked in his eyes before, now his gaze holds the blithe ignorance of someone who has never had to struggle.

Lin can’t help but shake her head in awe. She’d beg him to take her on as a student if she didn’t suspect him of scheming to get her killed.

The woman, on the other hand, looks ready to panic. “Please,” she breathes, then flicks her eyes toward the far side of the street.

“Good evening, soldier,” the Veil man says in a dismissive tone as the driver approaches. “Do you need something?”

The wagon driver does an impressive job of mimicking the dead-eyed stare of the Empire’s soldiers. “We’ve received reports of violations. I need you to accompany me to the post.”

The woman nudges Lin yet again. Why is she so insistent? Torn, Lin sidles down the street until she can peer into the alley. Thick fog drapes the wagon, pooling and flowing over it like a fountain of mist. Lin’s friends are just shadowy hints. But it looks like they’ve managed to unhitch the horses and are pushing the wagon back.

“You must be joking,” the Veil man says. “I’m an Atal citizen. Such a demand is frankly outrageous.”

“I do as my sergeant commands,” the driver says in a flat voice. “We have reports of slavers using Atal—”

“Where is this sergeant? I’ll see to it that the Emperor himself hears of this!”

The driver lays a hand on his cudgel. “As I said, you’ll need to come with me.”

She glances again at the alley, then locks eyes with the Jalakyrisi woman. The driver and his associates seem to have this under control. They don’t need her anymore. And Lin was hoping to get answers.

With a quick nod, she moves to the woman’s side. Together, they slip to the far edge of the street, the woman glancing over her shoulder the whole way. Once she seems to judge their distance as far enough, she takes hold of Lin’s elbow.

“Stars be thanked,” she whispers. “I’m sorry to do this, but I’m desperate. I’ve been trying to escape that man since midday. Please help me.”

“Me, highness? I’m justen a Prov.”

The woman chews her lip as she shrugs. “Even so, you know more of this city and the surrounding area than I. You said you’re looking for work. I can offer you far more than you’d earn working for the Atal.”

A rush of anger ignites Lin’s blood. “I want nothing to do with spicers,” she spits, abandoning the bogspeech.

The woman doesn’t seem to notice the change in dialect. Or she’s too panicked to care. She shakes her head vehemently, once again looking over her shoulder before dragging Lin farther up the street. To one side, a narrow aisle forms a dark corridor between storefronts. The woman yanks Lin into the gap.

“Listen,” she says. “I mean to stop the spice trade. The effects of what we’ve provided… we had no idea.”

Lin leans close to the woman’s sleeve and sniffs. “Doesn’t smell like you’re particularly ignorant. Smells more like you bathe in that poison.”

“It’s different for me. I’ll explain, if you’ll listen.”

Wooden doors open off the corridor, accessing the back rooms of the shops that crowd the avenue behind them. Entrances for the Provs. Most merchants segregate their shops if they serve the lower class at all. The woman’s feet whisper along the cobblestones as she hurries for the alley at the end of the aisle. Once there, she leads Lin a few paces from the corridor, nudging aside a pile of refuse, and leans against the stone blocks of a wall.

“The traders we sent to represent Jalakyrisi interests never told us how the spices are being consumed here. In fact, though they were given strict instructions to forbid smoking, some may even have suggested it.” She shakes her head as if aghast. “We meant to offer your civilization a gift—”

Lin gestures to silence the woman. “Save your excuses. If you want my help, you need to explain what the problem is.”

“At first, the merchant who leads my delegation was as horrified as I am by the situation here. But that man—” She grimaces toward the corridor leading back to the avenue. “—has managed to persuade Elesavian to ignore what we found here. They’ve come to an arrangement, and now they’re threatening to harm me and my family if I don’t agree to keep quiet. I need to get word back to Jalakyris, exposing the plan and warning my family to seek shelter.”

“What sort of… arrangement?”

The woman presses her thin lips together and shakes her head. “Elesavian was always greedy. There’s a bribe involved. But since it’s against our faith to accept such a thing, they’ve agreed that an anonymous gift will appear where Elesavian can conveniently find it.”

Suddenly, the satchel seems to burn against Lin’s hip. A bribe?

“How—how much?”

The woman sighed. “How much is your country’s spice addiction worth to those who benefit from it? I don’t know exactly how it translates to the gems we use as currency, but I overheard mention of one thousand steel coins. Whatever those are.”

Lin coughs. A thousand twinklers? That would be enough to live comfortably for years. No obligations. No need to grovel to organizations like Veil for their criminal leavings. No need to steal at all. She could hop a ship to a distant land where no one knows the midden heap of a life she started with. Lin swallows, hard, and clamps the satchel tighter to her body.

“You may not believe me,” the woman says. “But I hope I’ve cast enough doubt that you’ll consider helping me find shelter for the night. I realize I’m in a desperate position, asking for guidance from a woman who just admitted she was lost. As I said, though, I can pay.”

“Fine. I’ll help you tonight. And don’t worry. I’m not actually lost. Just… looking for information.”

A brief look of confusion flickers across the woman’s face before she sags against the wall, shoulders slumping. “Thank you.”

“But after sunrise, I’m gone,” Lin snaps. “Like I already said too many times tonight, I work alone. Not in the business of giving or receiving charity, okay?”

For the briefest moment, Lin even believes her claim.