Shannon Blair © 2021
All Rights Reserved
Moranthus had spent the better part of a fortnight chasing his quarry along the Dawn’s Gate edge of the Ghostwood. His meager diet of chalky waybread and oversalted jerky did little more than take the edge off his hunger, and spending weeks on horseback had left him beyond saddle sore. His days blurred together like the colors of the glowstone he kept cradled in the center of his palm. Though it was his only reliable guide at the questionably mapped edges of this unfamiliar country, the strain of determining where each of its shades faded into the next, counting off one less mile between him and his ever-moving destination, left him with a near-constant headache.
The wide, hilly landscape around him certainly didn’t offer much else to guide him on the rare occasions he glanced at it to ensure he hadn’t strayed too far from the Ghostwood’s edge in his search. Dawn’s Gate’s northern plains didn’t look so different from the southern steppes of Moonridge, his homeland, but in the absence of the bone-chilling winds that screamed across Moonridge’s southern steppes, the still air around him felt foul and stagnant, as though a dozen people had breathed it before him and sucked all the life from it.
But Moranthus wouldn’t have traded any of it for the world. This was the first real hunt he’d seen in over a decade, after he’d made a pariah of himself by getting caught on the losing side of the coup that had killed his Patriarch and set his Patriarch’s illegitimate daughter on Moonridge’s throne. A few minor discomforts were nothing to complain about.
Even the solitude came as a welcome change after finding himself at the center of attention in every human village he passed through. The adults gave him veiled stares and treated him with just enough politeness to make him feel unwelcome. Their children’s endless questions over what had made his ears so long and pointy and whether he’d gotten his purple skin from frostbite, of all things, made him feel like one of the framed butterflies his Patriarch had kept in his study. Moranthus wondered if they treated all elves that way. Or if they knew the shaved sides of his head marked his probationary status in Moonridge and didn’t want him trying to find a place for himself in their community. Not that anyone in Moonridge had treated him much better lately.
Just over two months earlier, he’d lounged on the narrow, rickety bed pressed against the left wall of his rented room, happy to be home after the latest in a series of jobs only marginally more interesting than watching snow melt. Beside him, his amethyst cameo of his former Patriarch sat in its usual place near his pillow. Moranthus absently rubbed the carved likeness of his Patriarch with his thumb, missing the days when his work left him feeling fulfilled instead of frustrated. In his service, Moranthus had spent his days tracking down fugitives, missing persons, and lost or stolen valuable objects.
His Matriarch’s latest orders had gotten his hopes up by sending him in search of a messenger who had vanished en route to his destination while carrying sensitive correspondence. But when Moranthus found the messenger’s belongings and gnawed bones strewn about an abandoned wolf den, the “sensitive correspondence” in question turned out to be nothing more than a dinner invitation to the head of a minor noble household. Moranthus had been reduced to a glorified follow-up letter.
The room’s low ceiling and windowless walls made him wonder if it had been part of an attic before its conversion into a living space. The cramped space around him—occupied by a table and single chair pressed against its right wall in addition to the bed and chest of drawers that lined its left—felt comfortable enough compared to the inns he stayed in on the road. After ten years, he hardly noticed the draft his poorly sealed walls let in. The fire he kept blazing in the small fireplace against his back wall kept the worst of the cold out anyway.
The smell of blood from the butcher’s shop beneath him wafted through the gaps between his thin floorboards, mingling in a not entirely unpleasant manner with the crisp, sweet taste of the bowlful of plums he’d made into his evening meal. As he finished each plum, he tossed its pit across the room, where it bounced off his doorknob with a sharp ping before clattering along his floor. It made a completely unreasonable amount of noise, really. But that was the point.
He’d done it as his latest mild act of revenge against the butcher downstairs, who had woken well before dawn that morning for what seemed to be the sole purpose of loudly and thoroughly fucking his wife. For the past several years, the butcher had made a point of waking Moranthus that way every morning after Moranthus returned from a mission and wanted nothing more than a good, long sleep.
Moranthus still hadn’t decided whether the butcher did it as a backhanded reminder that Moranthus wasn’t getting any, or as a bizarre way of marking his territory. More than once, he’d considered pulling the butcher aside and explaining that, if he had any intention of running off with a member of the butcher’s household—which he did not—he would’ve been far more interested in the charming young fellow the butcher had recently brought in as an apprentice. If the charming apprentice in question hadn’t already taken up with the butcher’s wife, anyway. But pointing out that the butcher had an attractive apprentice and an unfaithful wife would probably get him banned from the butcher’s shop, and he didn’t want to go to the trouble of finding another reputable place to buy meat in the lower district of Aurora, Moonridge’s capital. Or a new landlord, for that matter.
The first knock at his door caught Moranthus off guard. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a visitor. He’d halfway decided to dismiss it as a trick of the wind, or a child throwing rocks as an ill-advised form of amusement, when a second knock echoed through his room, followed by several more in rapid succession.
Moranthus slid off his bed and retrieved the dagger he kept beneath his pillow before padding, barefoot, across the floorboards between him and the door, careful to avoid the ones that creaked. No one who’d come to his door unannounced was likely to have anything pleasant in store for him. Not anymore.
He opened his door to find one of his Matriarch’s messengers standing outside, an official-looking satchel in his arms. In that moment, Moranthus wanted nothing more than to tell the bastard that his next set of orders could wait until he asked for them and slam his door shut again.
Instead, he sighed and asked, “What do you want?”
“I am looking for Moranthus. I’ve come to the wrong place, I take it?” The messenger frowned as he cast a disdainful glance over Moranthus. His eyes lingered on the shaved sides of Moranthus’s head and the thick stripe of red hair—the only thing separating him from a clean-shaven full exile—that ran down its center, woven into a disheveled, three-strand commoner’s braid. Outside of Aurora’s upper district, Moranthus rarely bothered with the elaborate, seven-strand affair that marked him as a veteran duskblade. In Lower Aurora, it only served as a marker of how far he’d fallen.
“Not at all. You’ve already found him, in fact.” Moranthus flipped his dagger so its blade rested in his palm and presented its pommel—engraved with a stylized snowhawk, the duskblade insignia—to the messenger for inspection.
The messenger’s face snapped into a toothy smile, oozing false cheer as he presented the satchel to Moranthus. “Excellent. I come bearing orders from our most esteemed Matriarch,” he said, each syllable accompanied by a tap of his well-fitted, overembroidered right boot. The steep, narrow streets that wound their way through Lower Aurora—slick with mud and whatever other refuse trickled down from the upper city—had left it and its twin covered in a layer of filth that would never quite wash off. It served him right for wearing that sort of footwear on the job.
He was a mousy little thing, with pale, watery eyes set in a bland, but well-proportioned face, his ears perfectly pointed and skin a flawless shade of dusky lilac. Probably hadn’t set foot outside Upper Aurora before their Matriarch had sent him on this delivery, no doubt as a punishment of some sort. Moranthus would’ve much preferred the sight of the butcher, his face flushed ruddy-violet from exertion and his blood-stained apron draped over his ever-growing paunch. At least he’d earned his place in the world.
“So I noticed.” Moranthus made no move to accept the satchel.
The messenger blinked at him, brow furrowed in an almost comical display of confusion. “Would you like to invite me in then? I’d prefer to conclude my business here as soon as possible.”
“Not particularly, but I take it I don’t have much choice in the matter.”
“You don’t. There are certain…details our Matriarch insisted I explain to you in person. To prevent any misunderstandings.”
Moranthus opened his door wide and gestured for the messenger to step through. “Let’s get this over with.” Before he lost his temper at being forced to offer hospitality to a highborn busybody, who’d no doubt leave grimy footprints all over his floor.
The messenger made himself comfortable in Moranthus’s chair, his hands folded over the satchel on his lap. Well aware the messenger expected him to remain standing as a way of acknowledging that the messenger acted as an extension of their Matriarch’s will, Moranthus seated himself on his bed and leaned back against the wall behind him. The frustrated glare it earned him made him confident he’d chosen the right course of action.
“So, what’s this all about?” Moranthus gave the messenger the most ingenuous smile he could manage. Best not to press his luck too far.
The messenger took a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose as though he meant to fend off a headache. “Our Matriarch has, for reasons far beyond the comprehension of one such as myself, chosen to entrust you with a highly sensitive mission of the utmost urgency. I would advise against treating it with the same flippancy you have shown me thus far.”
Moranthus sat up straight, eyeing the satchel with a sense of curiosity he hadn’t felt in years. “Is that why she was so adamant about you explaining my orders to me?” When they’d last spoken, their Matriarch had told him in no uncertain terms that he should consider himself lucky she’d spared even his life after he’d chosen his master so poorly. She’d then evicted him from his hard-won room in Aurora’s palace and made a point of restricting him to assignments well below his rank, most of which took him as far away from Aurora as possible. Putting this sort of trust in him wasn’t like her. “Because that won’t be necessary. I’m sure our Matriarch has told you all sorts of wild stories about me—most of which, in her defense, are probably true—but I assure you, I am perfectly capable of reading and understanding whatever’s in that satchel of yours.”
“The orders themselves aren’t what she asked me to explain,” the messenger replied. “In fact, I couldn’t explain them if I wanted to. Our Matriarch felt that sharing the exact nature of your orders with me would compromise their security. They should be self-explanatory once you’ve taken the time to read over them.”
“So, if I can’t ask you anything about my orders, what did our Matriarch want you to explain to me?”
“That a great deal depends upon your success in this matter, and that you may find yourself in a more…favorable position upon your return so long as you do not disappoint her. She also instructed me to give you this, to be used in the unfortunate event of your failure.” The messenger retrieved a razor from a pouch on his belt and tossed it onto the bed beside Moranthus. Even tucked inside its wooden handle, its steel blade had a cold, sobering shine. “Does it clarify the gravity of the task that lies before you?”
Using only his fingertips, Moranthus picked up the razor, casting a wary eye over the ceremonial carvings that adorned its handle. So, that was his Matriarch’s game. Either he returned home with news of his success, or he faced the grim choice he’d so narrowly avoided ten years ago: death or exile. Whichever he chose, the razor’s edge would suit his needs. “That it does. I suppose I’d best get to work,” he said. His voice sounded hollow, like a distant echo carried on the wind.
“Indeed, you should. Sooner, rather than later, if you’ve any sense left in that space between your ears.” The messenger got to his feet and placed the satchel on Moranthus’s table. “This contains your orders, as well as everything you’ll require to carry them out. I wish you the best of luck. You’re going to need it.” With that, the messenger let himself out of Moranthus’s room, leaving the door open behind him.
The autumn air it let in felt warm compared to the ice in Moranthus’s veins.