Saturday, September 24, 2016

Shifters: Manipulations excerpt

This is the first part of the story, though not the entire first chapter. Enjoy.

"I do not like this, princess." Abrex said.

"You never like it, Abrex," the girl walking beside him replied. "And nothing ever happens, and nothing will now."

Abrex grimaced, then said, "You do not know that. Things in the city are restless."

Princess Lirianin smiled up at him. "Nothing will happen, Abrex, and if it does, you'll be there to protect us, won't he, Tivna?"

Tivna said nothing, but Abrex saw that she kept her eyes busy, too, trying to note anything that seemed wrong.

"Oh, I'm so glad you're finally well again and can come with us!" The princess took the other girl's arm. "Don't let Abrex worry you. He has to see imps in every shadow, it's what he does."

Abrex sighed, but he did feel his lips twitch. Sometimes he wished that the Princess Lirianin were like those demure princesses in the stories, but she wasn't, and that was the end of it. And truth to tell, there was some good to be said for having a princess with such spirit. Still, it didn't make his job as her guard easy, especially at times like this.

The sun had descended behind the high walls of the city of Akbarra. Abrex welcomed the cooling of the oppressive heat of the day, though the desert air was still as dry as always. His eyes scanned the narrow street, trying to see if anyone was paying him and his two companions undue attention, trying to see if any threats were hiding in the shadows of doorways or alleyways in this impoverished area of the city.

"Oh, it's already so late. Let's hurry, it's not far to where Olia lives." the princess said as they turned into an alley. "She's been doing better, so I've heard, but it's been weeks since I've been able to visit her."

And this was one reason Abrex felt such fondness for this headstrong, troublesome princess. Olia was an old woman who used to help care for the princess child, but her age was catching up with her, and she had become frail and sickly. Abrex knew of nobles who would completely forget about a servant who was no longer of any use, but the princess insisted on trying to look after her old nurse. Which was the reason she had set aside her royal gowns for a few hours, and she, her personal servant, and her guard were dressed in common robes and walking these poor streets.

They came to a narrow stairway, then walked up it to a doorway, and entered a small room which was barely lit by a small oil lamp. A couple of women sat on either side of a low bed, on which an old woman lay. The one in the bed looked up as they entered, and weakly held up a bony hand to them. The princess went over to her, took her hand, and began talking with her. Tivna quietly spoke with the other women, and worked with them on getting the room cleaned, and some food prepared.

Abrex stood by the door, keeping his eyes and ears open, trying to keep his impatience at bay. As he had said to the princess, things were restless in the city. His position as the princess' guard did not allow him to often leave the palace grounds, but he heard enough talk from others who worked in the palace to know that rebellious talk and even demonstrations were becoming frequent.

The fact that the ruler of Akbarra, The Iron Face, was an absolute tyrant was reason enough for some people to rebel. But stories from outside the city, of villages being wiped out, or caravans not arriving when expected, were enough to cause people to feel even greater fear. That those story seemed tied to The Tainted Land, the blighted region mere days away from the city, caused added panic in those who heard them.

Whatever was happening, something had scared The Iron Face enough for him to seek for help, even from those he counted as enemies. Rumors in the palace said that he planned to send an emissary to The Talla Empire. Since Akbarra was no friend of the empire, and The Iron Face had often expressed his hatred for it, only something very serious would have made him ask them for any help.

The Princess Larianin was good-hearted, but not always the most aware of things around her, like now. She sat talking away with the old woman, oblivious that evening had turned to night. Abrex noticed it, and it made him anxious. If these troublesome factions knew the princess was out and about in the city, what would they do to get their hands on her?

Though if they thought The Iron Face cared for the girl, they might be disillusioned. She was the daughter of his deceased brother, true, but he had no great love for her. At best, she might be useful, if talks with The Talla Empire went well. She was of age, and it would be expected that any alliance with the empire would involve a marriage between the ruling houses, and the princess was the most likely pawn that The Iron Face would use in such an event. That would be the only real reason The Iron Face would respond to any threat against her.

Abrex shook his head, trying to get his thoughts to return to this moment. He looked from one girl to the other. At a glance, they were a fascinating study in contrasts. The princess was the taller of the two, with the sun-browned skin typical of the people of Akbarra and wavy black hair hidden at the moment by her head covering. The servant was smaller and slighter, her hair as black as the princess's but straight, and the folds at her eyes and her lighter skin confirmed that she was not completely Akbarran.

Abrex's position as a guard to a member of the royal family had required his undivided loyalty, which meant that so long as he held the position, marriage and family were denied to him. For eight years, he had served as the princess's guard, and Tivna had been with them for almost all of that time. Though he would never say it, the two had become like daughters to him, and his concern for the safety and well-being of the servant was no less than for that of the princess.

Watching them now, he wondered which of them did Olia the more good. It wasn't something that could be measured, and likely it didn't matter. The princess' bright presence and animated chatter brought life and even laughter to the previously listless woman, and the other girl's quiet labors prepared food for her and kept her rooms clean.

Tivna put away the kitchen tools, then looked over at Abrex and nodded. He grinned wryly. She had noticed that night had come, too. The girl was of about the same age as the princess, but more aware than most other people he knew, even among the guards. She had been ill for several days, and he had to admit that the princess was right, it was good to have her back and well.

"We need to go, princess." Abrex said firmly. "No argument. It is already dark. You can return another day, and hopefully earlier in the day, but now, we must go."

Larianin hesitated a moment, then nodded. She kissed the old woman's cheek, and they said a few quiet things to each other, then she stood and nodded to him. "I'm ready."

They left the room, and descended the steps. Night had fully set in, and Abrex strained to see in the darkness. The uneasiness he had been feeling during the evening became stronger. They walked a few yards, and he looked back to check on the girls. Behind them, he could see the outlines of two people.

Abrex looked the way they were going, and saw two other people approaching. His heart started pounding, and his hand went to the hilt of his sword.

There was movement, then some small explosions at his feet. Thick gas enveloped him. He coughed once, then his mind contorted before he lost consciousness.

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