Sunday, January 20, 2008

Light (part three)

Aelph's grandson had months ago had abandoned his quest to avenge Aelph's death by the hands of his three brothers, giving it (and two of his father's three gifts) to his sister, who took it up in his stead. While he awaited her return, the grandson had become resident in a city near his homeland. In this place, he worked as a bureaucrat, watching his lessers and superiors alike in fear of betrayal and hope of advancement. That latter hope was sooner met; when they were toppled (tragically) by scandal and disgrace, the grandson gained power through quick exploitation of his superiors' failings. He rose steadily, enough to provoke fear from those above him, but not enough to justify action on their part. And as he acquired power for himself, he gained wealth, as well. No longer did he live in the small apartment he first rented in that city, but in a rich villa, outside the city; his clothes studded with gems and gold.

A great distance away, in a place linked only by long and difficult trade routes to the city of the grandson's residence, Jasmine, Aelph's granddaughter, strode wearily through the gates of a great and gleaming city. Her clothes were dirty, tattered, and ill-fitting, stolen from the bodies of dead refugees on the side of the road; her finances being entirely emptied by the difficulties of travel. Her purse was filled only by the wind. She walked alone; for most of the journey she had traveled with merchants and caravans as a guard, allowing her to avoid starvation, but this last stretch she had made alone.

For all her poverty, Jasmine cut an impressive figure as she walked through the streets of the city. She was yet bound beneath her clothes, to present the appearance of a youth, not a woman. Her cloak, taken from Aelph's oldest brother, swirled around her, somewhat concealing her poverty; the sword at her side, long and steel-forged, was an unspoken threat. A dagger-hilt protruded from her coarsely patched boots, the only item Jasmine had managed to save from the beginning of her journey.

She had come to this city with the last of her knowledge: that Aelph's middle brother, the only one yet breathing, had come to this city some time after his betrayal, and made of himself a merchant prince. On her journey, she had learned more with his name: that he was a power, keeping a private army on his estates, and holding many secrets with which to manipulate the others of equal wealth. She had considered some plans for his death, and the retrieval of the last of Aelph's legacy, the golden necklace, but much rested upon the men guarding him. So she walked through the streets, heading for his palace.

The streets were lined with rich facades, every wall richly painted. Onion domes and corkscrew towers reached upwards proudly. The road was empty of beggars and vagrants. A squad of cavalry cantered through a cross-road as Jasmine walked through, passers-by fearfully giving way to them. Jasmine stepped aside, and otherwise refused to acknowledge their presence; they, fat and cowardly, looked at her and decided to take no action, instead spying a poor beggar, lurching from an alleyway. The beggar, clearly both destitute and desperate, raised her arms to the cavalrymen, begging for pity. Laughing, they reached out with their weapons and impaled the beggar cruelly; Jasmine broke into a jog, so as to quicker escape the sound of their sport. The reason for the absence of the poor was now much clearer to her.

Unsurprisingly, the gates to the merchant prince's palace were guarded. Jasmine requested entry; the guard, guardedly, requested a bribe, and that being (necessarily) refused, requested that Jasmine take a hike. Having done so, Jasmine rounded the nearest corner and scaled the wall in seconds. Broken glass topped the wall; Jasmine avoided the shards and vaulted over, onto the roof of the interior building. Voices from inside cried out in surprise at the thud of Jasmine's boots on their roof; Jasmine ran onwards and climbed upwards, outrunning their complaint. She was atop the palace.

In the rafters of the prince's cavernous dining hall, Jasmine watched the merchant prince, her greatuncle, at his meal. She considered poison; but as she could not bribe the guard outside, she could not bribe his food-tasters. She considered hurling her dagger down upon him; but there was no guarantee that she would hit him, much less kill him, and besides, she was fond of the blade, it being the last thing she had from her home. So, other options sadly refuted, Jasmine made her way over to the rear wall, and dropped to the ground.

Her left palm skimmed the wall as she fell, to slow her; her right drew out the sword of her grandfather. Even as Jasmine landed, the guards to either side of the merchant prince were reacting; she slew the rightmore of the two with a single stroke of flashing steel, and as the other drew blade and swung, Jasmine pulled back her sword and retaliated in kind, smashing the guard's dress sword like so much clay and cutting him down where he stood.

The guests were jumping to their feet, panic in their faces; other guards were drawing swords or crossbows. Jasmine's gaze focused on the man in front of her: the merchant prince. He stood and turned, recognition not yet in his face.

Jasmine's sword freed itself from the guard's corpse, flashed down.

With a painful crash, the sword hit a hidden coat of armour and rebounded. Jasmine winced as the blow strained the scars on her palm and arm; the prince fell backwards, smashed downwards by the force of the blow. His necklace, still worn after all these years, puddled at Jasmine's feet, severed by the blow.

Jasmine froze. She would only have one choice. More guards were approaching, and she could see bolts being fitted into crossbows. Deciding, she stole the necklace from the floor where it lay, and ran, fleeing through a servant's entrance in the back. Guards followed; she slew the first through the door and ran again, leaving confusion and disorder in her wake. Twice bolts flew at her; the first missing, the second lodging itself in her cloak, harmless. Jasmine made her escape, panting and gasping at city's edge, and considered.

Her attack would not work twice. Guards would be alert, looking for her, and more numerous; a direct attack would result in failure or death. And in her hands she held the golden necklace; the third part of the sign her father had asked for, to prove the three brothers' deaths.

She had vowed to return to her brother, when the quest was done, and the three treacherous brothers were slain. With a heavy heart, she set out on the road to their promised meeting place.

The proof of her success lay in her hands, as the merchant prince oppressed his people behind her.

Night fell, cloudy and moonless. For Jasmine, there was no light.