The small city of Meleese was not used to such extravagance. Tucked beneath the shadow of the Great Wall, even the light of the dawn was a luxury often not afforded to the red slates of the city’s hundred or so buildings. Lanterns swung from dirty street lamps day in and day out, only the tallest spire of the cathedral could reach the height needed just to touch the decaying rays of dusk. And even that was barely the tip.
But now Meleese, even if just for a moment or two, was to play at grandeur and bask in the sun of a Royal Visit.
Or so they thought.
They heard the rumbling carriage before they saw it. Bakers, their faces red and sweaty from slaving by their ovens all day, put down their baguettes to accept any reprieve from the oppressive heat of their kitchens; even if that was just the gentle breath of a cool breeze out their shop windows. Potters, hands caked in clay and brown muck hardening in their hair, stopped pedaling at their stations, their pots deforming under their own weight, as they ran to follow the crowd that had began to swarm at the front of a carriage with a missing door. And the rich ladies, enjoying their afternoon mug of tea, tutted at one another as they placed their pristine white books down on the intricate doilies that adorned their polished, hard wood tables, to peer from their second story balconies, down onto the panic on the street below.
Only a street performer, a witch called Ephanie Karival, didn’t know what was going on. With a glum face and reproachful stares, she barged through the throng of citizens all pouring towards the Mayor’s office in the centre of town. Sick of their ignorance, and like a salmon swimming up stream, Ephanie shouldered and nudged her way through the revelers, furious that they were still ignoring her as much as they had done when she’d been performing.
“Move. Move you. Move out of the way. You wouldn’t know true art was if it came and bit you on the wazoo,” she becried them all as she was knocked from her feet by a fat shoe polisher, who smeared his black boot polish down her red velvet corset in his haste to outrun the approaching carriage. “Ungrateful oaf!” she yelled in his general direction. Lost in the crowd and deafened by the hustle, she bustled her way into a door way and wiped the tears from her eyes.
“I told you it’d be hard,” her mother’s voice rang around her.
“Shut up, dead old woman,” Ephanie muttered to herself as she tried to use her handkerchief to take the mess from her performance outfit.
“Stop that, you’re setting the stain quicker,” her mother scolded.
“Could you, you know, just not, please. Today’s bad enough without ghosts whispering in my ear, thank you very much.”
“You should have taken it off when you left the Mayor’s Square.”
“And you should have maybe not went traipsing through the woods and got yourself eaten by a bear. But, alas, here we are, Mistress Hindsight,” Ephanie shouted at the rickety door sign that was still dripping speckled water from its wooden curves.
A young girl, a pick pocket if Ephanie were the type to judge people by their appearance – she wasn’t, but she couldn’t help thinking it – peered at her with large, doe blue eyes. Mystified, she looked like she was about to ask whom Ephanie was talking too before…
“Shoo, little urchin. Shoo,” Ephanie waved her soiled handkerchief at the little girl, who took one more look at her before plunging into the throng of people in search of her next target.
“You look like a crazy woman,” her mother tittered.
“I am a crazy woman,” Ephanie retorted as she used the hanky to wipe away her tears, smearing great streaks of boot polish along her cheeks as she did so. She didn’t notice, and nor did her mother tell her.
“I didn’t raise you to be crazy,” her mother said haughtily.
“Well you got eaten, remember, so…”
“You could have been anything. Anything. I’ve never seen talent such as yours. Your grandmother, Beya rest her soul, thought you’d become the next Witch-Senator. Oh how she’d weep if she knew you stood on street corners conjuring parlour tricks for coppers,” Ephanie’s mother wailed in faux-posh accent, in her daughter’s ear.
“No, she wouldn’t. She told me I could be anything I wanted to be. Not anything you wanted me to be. And I want to do this.”
“Oh really? You want to do this,” Ephanie could imagine her mother, wrapped in all her furs, wave her thin, skeletal hands, heavy under the weight of all her dead husband’s rings. “You want to cry in the doorway of some laudy tavern as the rest of the world rushes to see something that you’re too wrapped up in yourself to notice.”
Now her mother had said it, Ephanie was curious as to why so many people were streaming to Mayor’s Square. She stuck her tongue into the wind and tried to taste the air. Clacking her teeth over and over, she protruded her tongue once more to see if she had tasted correctly the first time.
“Fear,” she muttered, confused. “Why are they all so scared?”
“Hush girl,” her mother warned. “Press your back into the door and look away,” all nonsense vanquished from her tone.
Half obeying, Ephanie pushed herself back into the cold stone of the doorway as she peered along the street. A line of guards, fearsome looking beneath their diamond helmets held ragged spears horizontally in front of them. With their wall, they were pushing everyone further and further into the city.
Panicking, Ephanie raised her foot to step out into the crowd, hopeful to slip away before the guards saw her.
“Stay, girl,” her mother roared, and the indecision let the moment of opportunity pass.
The guards, some of their armour dented, or even missing, and more than a few with a limp or a bloodied cheek, walked right past a silent Ephanie.
“The carriage,” her mother, spectral as she was, could see what her daughter could not.
A decadent carriage rolled down the cobbled high street. A door was missing from its hinges and one of the wheels had missing spokes. The golden decoration around the door was torn off and a frightened girl sat deathly pale within. Holding the blue, laced hem of her extravagant gown, she looked as if she had knocked on the door to hell and seen the devil himself.
She rambled on by, her carriage jostling her about violently, as a second line of guards kept the rear secure. Once they had gone by, the street was almost empty, only the slow and partially curious, trailed behind.
“What’s going on?” Ephanie asked a man with a blue beard and a large trombone by his side.
“The Princess. She was attacked by some creature along the Cliff Road. The Mayor called everyone to the Square just before she arrived. I was, er, busy,” he spoke in a gruff, but melodical, voice. “Just heading there now.”
“You don’t need to make excuses with me. I’m no city watchmen,” Ephanie found herself attracted to the man. His hairy forearms bore tattoos of beautiful, scantily clad ladies, all paying trombones like his own.
“I can tell,” he nodded at her cheeks.
“You think ‘cos I’m a woman I can’t be a watchmen?” she blustered.
“The scallion!” her mother encouraged.
“Well, yes. That would make you a watchwoman,” he laughed at his own pedanticism. “But I was nodding at the black soot on your cheeks.”
“What?” she dabbed her finger beneath her eyes and down to her lips and pulled back a blackened tip.
“Here,” suddenly he was very close. Impossibly close. He moved so stealthily and so quickly that barely had she huffed in a lungful of air to fuel a witty retort before both of them were huddled beneath the dripping sign. “Use mine.”
“You two,” a self-righteous voice called, “the Mayor wants everyone in the Square at once.”
“The lady hurt herself,” the blue bearded man turned to the guard and hollered back. “We’re just cleaning her up.”
“Do so quickly,” he looked as if he could smell the lie but knew he couldn’t prove it. “There’ll be hell to pay for this one.”
“Can you tell us what happened?” the blue bearded man chanced. Ephanie couldn’t be sure, but her witches’ nose thought it smelled guilt around the handsome man.
“Just get to the Square. You’ll find out soon enough.”
“Bugger,” Ephanie stuck her tongue out at the guard as soon as he turned his back to yell at a crippled man being pulled along the street in a cart by his dog.
“Looks like you’re one of us,” the man’s lips were so close to her that she could smell the beer on his breath.
“One of who?” she peered up at him, intoxicated.
“The misfits,” he didn’t drop her gaze, but pointed towards the old, the ill and the curious that hadn’t been strong enough to fight the crowds that went before the carriage.
“Lovely,” she said, sliding herself out from his oppressive weight and into the street. Empty shops sat peering onto the litter billowing in the wind. The shadow of the wall meant that the lamps dangling from green poles cast a few puddles of amber light on the hard stones of the cobbles.
“Do you need a guide to the Square?”
“I don’t even know your name,” she countered.
“Allak,” he bowed as if she were a true lady.
“Ephanie,” she took his hand and continued the charade.
“Beautiful,” he stood and looked deep into her eyes, the blue of his own matching his beard. She didn’t know if he was talking about her name or herself.
“Fine, ignore me,” her mother complained. “Abandoned for a man.”
They reached the Square only ten minutes later but already the Mayor’s commencement had begun. Giving a quick nod to the man whose cart Allak had pulled down the open streets of Meleese and a ruffle of his grateful dog’s ears, he lead Ephanie through the crowd and towards a large, square dais, raised to enclose a tree. Hundreds more dotted the Square, bringing green to the caramel and ivory coloured stone of the courtyard design. The Mayor’s Palace sat on the far end of the space, a hundred steps stretched its length that lead to a row of pillars, holding the monstrous roof up.
“…an attack most foul,” the Mayor’s voice was echoed through purple stones dotted amongst the trees and statues of the Square. Ephanie knew the magic well, and had as a child, hidden a pebble beneath her mothers cooking pot and spoke through the corresponding stone to convince her she was hearing ghosts.
The joke was to be returned.
“Princess Reala is unharmed, and unshaken by the afternoon’s events,” the mayor’s shrill voice rang out over the congregated crowd, all desperate to get into the Square and have a peek at their future queen.
If Ephanie could see the world as her mother could she’d see a huge beast resting in the Square, made up of thousands of people, with a hundred tails that sprawled out along the narrow streets and alleys that fed into the centre of Meleese.
“She looked pretty shaken when I seen her,” Ephanie said to Allak.
“Shhh,” an old lady with pearl earrings shushed. Her husband, more suited to the work of a lap dog, gave an apologetic shrug when his wife’s back was turned, too scared to embarrass her. That sent Ephanie into fits of giggles that only drew more ire from the woman.
“… as any future Queen of Athuria would be. She is strong and she is safe. But, that does not mean that the attacker can go unpunished. A beast was called. A beast conjured from magic most foul. A beast intended…,” he paused for dramatic effect, “for murder.”
The word rang out across the silent populace, its menacing connotations making little children hug tight on their parents legs and husbands and wives giving each other knowing looks.
“We do not tolerate murder here in Meleese. You know this, I know this, but someone out there does not know this. And to that person, whoever you may be, we will find you.”
“Why do they think the attacker’s here?” Ephanie asked Allak.
“Where else would you go? They probably already have men searching the woods outside, hounds and god knows what else tracking any scent they can find. Anyone who could summon something strong enough to decimate a royal patrol like that would know the woods are the last place they should be.”
“So coming here’s safer?”
She did and she could see his point.
It was easy to become a nobody amongst so many different people. You would lose your name if you stayed in a crowd like this for too long. A hive mind, her mother would call it. One of the reasons she’d raised Ephanie in the woods, away from the eyes and minds Ephanie now sought so desperately to capture with her magic show.
A thin boy wearing an expensive military uniform, no doubt a bought role by a rich father, ran up the mayoral steps and handed a white sheet of parchment to his monocle’d master. His breathing heavy along the crystals, the mayor ripped the parchment open and let his beady eyes devour the words.
Ephanie didn’t notice this, her hands were busy conjuring pretty lights that danced and played amongst the crowd to distract a little girl from crying. Fat, thick tears vanished with their own kind of magic as Ephanie saved her poor little ears from any more stories of monsters and nightmares.
“I’ve just had a communication from King Lioter and the Witch-Senate,” the Mayor spoke clearly, enunciating every word. He could barely contain his excitement. A lead weight fell in Ephanie’s stomach as a sense of dread crept up her spine. “All witches in Meleese are to report for questioning…on pain of death. The Masi will be here at dawn to investigate today’s brutal attack on an innocent princess.”
Ephanie’s lights ground to a halt as every eye that had watched them whizz around their feet now turned on her. Fear, mistrust, hate, all broke from their eyes and trickled down their faces turning their neutral expressions hostile. Only the little girl still smiled at Ephanie as several guards started pushing their way into the crowd.
“Witch,” people kept repeating over and over as Allak dragged Ephanie through the thinning crowd.
“Come on, Ephanie,” he kept his grip tight around her arm. “You’re in danger.”
Five guards, all in shiny black steel, pointed their swords at them both as they rounded the corner back onto the street they had first met. With the few guards chasing behind, Ephanie wondered if it was better to just give in and hand themselves over.
“Don’t be stupid, girl,” her mother warned. “You know what ‘questioning’ means.”
She did. Her grandmother hadn’t been hung from a century old tree for nothing.
As the captain of the small group of guards walked forward, his sword a metal horn in his hand, Ephanie knew that it was all over.
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” she tried to plead with him, hoping that times had changed since her grandmother’s death.
But Allak raised the trombone from his side, pressed the golden mouthpiece to his lips, and let loose a blast that hurled the guards from their feet. Dazed, but only for a few seconds, he ran forward as Ephanie pulled herself free from his grip. She knew – knew – that if they would only listen to her she could prove her innocence. She’d been performing all day, someone had to recognise her. She felt the empty coin purse by her slender waist and knew in that second that no one would come to her defence.
As the first guard struggled to his feet, Allak turned back towards the strange girl with lilac dust above her eyes and boot polish on her cheeks and reached his hand out towards her.
“Are you coming?”