In an effort to get me to start writing again, my husband has been choosing prompts and images from Pinterest and challenging me to write. I finished this one recently and liked it quite a lot, so I thought I’d share. (It was also read aloud to my family and they had lots of nice things to say about it. ^_^)
Prompt: The protagonist deftly pilots the “borrowed” boat into the cathedral. All of their team is dead or arrested, but there is one last thing they must do. The cool metal of the xiann is a comforting weight in their palm.
Everything sounded different inside the Grand Cathedral. It was the first thing that Ollin always noticed; not the jewel-toned banners streaming down from the marble pillars, not the curious mixture of scents: the brutally-cold sea salt blending with the steaming carts of spicy husques, and not how clear and blue the water was—one could see all the way to the bottom of the unknown-depths, where keen-eyed visitors could see glimmers of the large platinum coins tossed into the Canal for luck.
They needed luck if their errand involved seeing the Viceroy.
Desperate men had drowned attempting to retrieve those valuable coins.
Ollin shook his head.
The Grand Cathedral didn’t echo. That’s what he noticed. Voices didn’t carry- they vanished instead. The ringing of ship’s bells and the slosh of water around the hulls didn’t magnify in the stone-enclosed space. The birds’ cries were sharp and raucous, but they didn’t reverberate and deafen- they were like a pinprick instead: painfully quick.
Today, his soul was a silent as the mysterious acoustics. The silken banner of Wyndenhall– a country deep to the south— flowed red-gold in a sudden breeze. It fluttered above his head, like a cloud. A cloud of blood, hanging above him.
The blood of his crew. The wood beneath his feet was still stained in the cracks. So blood above his head and blood beneath his feet and no choice but to face the bloodbath before him.
His skin felt tight and brittle as he squinted, one hand on the tiller, one hand gripping the small metal vial hidden in his pocket. A small ship, low in the water, crossed his path, and he scowled. A fellow sea captain might recognize him—or worse, and more likely—recognize this ship. The wrong captain and the wrong ship, coming to the wrong place for all the wrong reasons.
And he’d thought that there was enough wrong with today.
The dock loomed ahead, and he squeezed the vial in his hand before taking it out to grip the wheel. Xiann. It gave him comfort even as everything around him seemed so cold. The mag on the side of the ship clicked against the metal dock on the far end—there was enough room for fifty vessels, even though maybe only thirty of the bays were occupied. The Viceroy’s government charged a hefty fee for lots inside the Cathedral. And then a ship had to be blessed by the Cardinals, every inch painted in holy water, and then the usual statues had to be purchased and put in place.
Ollin’s ship had all of these, of course. Though it wasn’t his ship. He’d borrowed it for this purpose, though he’d been gone longer than anyone had planned and he’d have to be careful when the Docksmaster came to inspect him.
“Greetings, Sailor,” said a Stargazer as Ollin climbed onto the metal and stone edifice. “May the Oracle be blessed.” He touched his forehead in reverence. Ollin felt sick, but maybe that was the sudden switch from the rolling sea to the insufferably sturdy Dock.
“May the Oracle be blessed,” he said automatically, and moved on. The Stargazers were the Cardinals’ personal spies—everyone knew it and they’d never bothered to hide it. He dropped a Platinum at the man’s feet as he passed. As was expected.
The clatter of soldiers sent his head down and his hood tugged deeper over his face. The stone steps led him away from the Grand Cathedral, past the statues of Cardinals and Viceroys in ages past, past the gaudily- festooned husque carts with their steam and their long lines. Everyone from the Palace knew that the real food was to be found down by the River, not camped along the Docks inside the Grand Cathedral—so the lines were made of dejected visitors returning from a visit to the Viceroy, and the hopefuls who had not been rejected as of yet.
Ollin gestured at the armored sentinels with one hand; the motion allowed them to catch sight of the small, bronze ram tattoo on his wrist. They were paid not to ask questions, and they allowed him through without even a whisper.
At each crossway, clogged with people and draped with that same array of jewel-toned flags spanning the Viceroy’s entire kingdom, Ollin flashed his tattoo and the guards wordlessly allowed him access wherever he wanted to go.
Up until he passed through the drafty portico that led directly into the Palace.
Ollin wordlessly flashed his tattoo once more.
“Designation,” barked the sentinel.
Ollin yanked his sleeve up so the man could see the Arabesque ram. Only about a dozen people in the entire world had that tattoo.
“New at this, are you?” Ollin’s voice rasped; he’d used it infrequently on the return journey.
“No, sir. Been here fifteen months,” repeated the man, straightening.
“Do you know what this tattoo means?” Ollin didn’t bother waiting for the man to respond; he shoved past and said, “It means you don’t ask questions.”
The door slammed shut on the sentinel’s fingers, and the portico echoed with his shout.
“Stupid,” Ollin said, feeling again for the Xiann in his pocket. “Stupid.”
“He just wanted a bribe,” said a voice he knew well.
“He’s an idiot,” Ollin turned away and strode purposefully in the other direction. Pattering footsteps kept up with him, just behind and to the left, where she knew perfectly well he couldn’t see her.
“Shaharazad,” he barked. “This isn’t the time.”
“You’ve been gone for three months,” she announced, as if every second of every day wasn’t etched in his head already. “And you sent no word. Did you at least bring me the gift you promised?”
Of course he hadn’t. He’d lived, and that was gift enough. He’d succeeded too, and that was more than anyone should have asked of him.
“No,” he said, and tried to sound apologetic.
“Where is he?” Ollin suddenly felt heavy with exhaustion and rage.
“Tower gardens, with the Starseer King.”
“Grenache is not a king, Shaharazad,” he said.
“He is,” she insisted, prancing around in front of him and blocking his way up a maroon-carpeted hall, “Everyone treats him like one.”
That was true, mostly because Grenache was the second most powerful man in the world. The Viceroy could kill you, certainly, but the Starseer? He could make sure that your name was eradicated from every household and memory. Ollin’s eyes stung and he gently patted her shoulder. “Keep everyone out for the next half-hour, will you?”
She narrowed amber eyes, and for a second, he thought that she’d refuse on account of being giftless. But Shaharazad, Princess of Ishfanhan wasn’t petty. She nodded. “If you’ll take me sailing.”
His ship was at the bottom of the sea.
“I’ll try,” he said, wearily. “Now, keep everyone out. Everyone.”
She nodded and sat down cross-legged in the aisle.
Ollin moved quickly up the hallway, and then up the many flights of stairs to the Tower Gardens. He could hear low voices murmuring before he’d reached the top. There were no guards here—the cocky sentinel was the last of the lot. Ollin strode in, caring little for his impropriety. He lifted his chin and stopped just in front of two men. They were as different as night and day—the Viceroy stood like a stalk of grain: willowy, thin, and completely golden. From the peak of his savagely-pointed golden crown to the flakes of gold brushed over his skin and hair, to the flowing silken robes, everything about this man was the color of the light. His soul was as black as hell, but his ostentatious color-coordination seemed to belie that.
The Starseer, like the Viceroy, had become nameless with his post. He resembled a human orb: Pale and colorless as cobwebs, chill and cold as winter. His robes were black as if the darkest color he could find could offset his lack of color. Even his eyes were pale. They were the first to find Ollin’s gaze.
“Welcome home,” the two men said, nearly in unison.
Ollin cringed as he bowed.
“Thank you, my Lords.”
“I’ll leave you,” said the Starseer blandly. He struggled to move his bulk away.
The Viceroy blinked ominously at Ollin. “Do you have it?”
Ollin worked his jaw. Did he have it? He had something- scars and wounds and nightmares. He had haunted days and sleepless nights. He had memories of his ship, sunk to the bottom of the sea. There was no one alive who could understand the trials, the dangers, and the miseries that he had known.
“I do.” He said simply.
The Viceroy held out a long, graceful hand.
“No,” said Ollin. “My men died for this. I almost died for this. This isn’t a simple exchange of goods. You sent us,” he said, and his voice died for a second, “you sent us across the sea, into danger of which we were not aware, for what. For death? For this?” He pulled out the vial of Xiann, the king’s metal, fashioned and complete within itself.
“It exists, then,” breathed the Viceroy.
For riches. His men had died for riches. Ollin ground his teeth and tried not to hurl all over the stones. He’d always known it would come to this. The Viceroy cared nothing for the lives of those who served him.
Merchant… Adventurer… Assassin.
“Existed,” Ollin corrected, flipping off the lid and hurling the metal vial straight into the stones at their feet.
For a second, there was a silver wave, then the metal splashed back upward, expanding and swallowing more than physically possible. The Viceroy was consumed, and Ollin with him. A fierce sense of accomplishment filled his soul as the metal encased him, cooling hard and fast.
Shaharazad would make a good queen.
Xiann- the Living Metal- killed both the Viceroy and Ollin in that moment, turning them into perfect metal statues of themselves. Even after the city had fallen into decay, a thousand years later, two mysterious metal statues still stood, perfect in every detail, facing one another on a rooftop.
(c) 2017 Amanda Bradburn
So, what did you think? I have another short story in to an e-zine to see if they’ll publish it! (Which is exciting)