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Never (prequel to the am.., p.1
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       Never (Prequel to The Amber Isle), p.1

           Ashley Capes
 
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Never (Prequel to The Amber Isle)
Never (Prequel to The Amber Isle)

  Copyright © 2016 by Ashley Capes

  Cover: Illustration by Lin Hsiang, Design by Vivid Covers

  Layout & Typeset: Close-Up Books

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval without permission in writing from the author.

  ISBN-978-0-9945289-4-0

  www.ashleycapes.com

  Published by Close-Up Books

  Melbourne, Australia

  Never

  (Prequel to The Amber Isle)

  Ashley Capes

  Chapter 1.

  Air rushed from Never’s lungs as the brute landed another blow.

  Never choked on a curse as he doubled over. The two other guards lifted him again, grip tightening further. “I can’t help feeling... there are other ways to tell me... Lord Firmita is busy,” Never gasped as he glanced up to the leader’s silhouette. The man was a hulking figure before the torchlight that caught in the warm breeze and twisted across stony manor walls.

  There was not much to see, just two glittering eyes in a darkened face. The man’s lip would be bleeding too, courtesy of Never’s elbow.

  “Search the fool. Knife him if he gives you any trouble.”

  Rough hands snatched the pack from Never’s shoulders. Another man searched his vest and the inner pockets of his cloak, removing several knives and tossing them to the grass.

  Damn swine.

  The rebuke could have been directed at himself – he’d misjudged them. Quite clearly his story of meeting Firmita in the garden had been pretty thin, especially now that he was being robbed by the man’s guard. Given a chance, Never might still talk his way into a meeting with the lord of the manor and find what he needed.

  Unless his blood got free.

  Then, no amount of talk would make a difference. But so long as they didn’t cut him, everything would be fine. Offer no resistance, let them search. Keep calm.

  The empty purse at his belt elicited a curse from the leader. “You’ve got nothing.” The big man spat. “No gold, no silver, nothing.”

  “I’m just as disappointed as you,” Never said.

  The man folded his arms, muscles bulging beneath the edges of his tunic. Red and yellow strips appeared near black in the night but the white from the rest of the tunic seemed bright enough to shave by. So clean. How did they manage it? Testament to Lord Firmita’s fastidiousness, perhaps.

  One of the fellows holding Never sighed. “Let’s just take him to Firmita already. He’s obviously worse off than us.”

  “Good idea,” Never said. “After all, we wouldn’t want him catching his men robbing a guest, would we? He’s rather devout, as I understand it.”

  One snorted. “Guest?”

  “Wait a minute,” the guard holding his pack said. “What’s this? Diego, want to take a look?” Never sighed when the man carefully lifted a wrapped relic then unwound the cloth to reveal a hunk of carved stone shaped as a fish.

  Or so it seemed at first glance.

  The fellow frowned down at it. “It looks old.”

  “Good guess,” Never muttered, unable to stop himself.

  “Shut your mouth,” the leader, Diego, said as he waved the men closer.

  In the yellow glow of the torchlight, carvings on the piece of stone glittered – the granite he’d worked into the surface to mimic scales and more, to mimic the old relics once commonly found near the Sand Cliffs. The way the guards’ eyes lit up suggested it had fooled them – but would it fool their lord?

  And would Never even get a chance to attempt his ploy? After trying for weeks to arrange a meeting with the collector, some boldness had seemed in order... but there was boldness and there was foolishness.

  “Now this we can sell,” one guard said.

  Diego shook his head. “No chance, Bu.”

  “Why not?” Bu whined.

  “Think you or I know the first thing about what it’s really worth? Or who to sell it to?”

  Grumbling.

  “Put it back.” The leader flexed his hands, balling them into fists as he began to pace in and out of the torchlight, clean-shaven jaw working. Finally, “Search him for more knives then take him to see Firmita.”

  “What if he talks, Diego?” the other one asked. “You know, about us robbing him.”

  “If he tries that, leave it to me. If I say he’s an assassin, Firmita will put him in the cells. Once he’s there I’ll kill him and blame it on the other prisoner.”

  “Charming,” Never said. And just why had guards taken up thievery?

  Diego flashed an evil grin before stalking off into the darkness.

  One of the guards kicked Never in the back of the knees. He fell, cheek thumping against the grass. Never growled. No matter how neat Lord Firmita kept his grounds, there was nothing to be done about the immediate itch.

  Bu held Never’s own dagger against his throat while the second fellow searched, finding the knife strapped to the small of his back.

  “We can sell a few of these at least,” Bu said.

  “Not being paid well enough?” Never asked.

  “Diego said shut up,” the other guard snapped.

  “Just one more thing – you forgot my boot,” Never said.

  The man grunted as he shuffled down to remove that blade too. That was all of them and it might build some trust, which he needed if he was going to survive long enough to get a proper look at Firmita’s collection of ancient relics.

  Would his luck hold?

  On the other hand, he was inside now, and sometimes that was half the battle. Being captured and unarmed made everything more difficult, admittedly, but life tended to be dull without challenges.

  And he needed to see the lord’s collection. The legend of the Sunken City might just be real after all, and one of Firmita’s maps marked the location. Or so rumour held.

  “Up with you then,” Bu said.

  Never stood, allowing his hands to be bound with coarse rope that dug into his skin, and then stumbled forward when the men pushed him toward the light. Beyond the first torch waited a heavy door leading into the manor, which Bu thumped upon. Windows above offered no movement, no light.

  Silence followed.

  Bu beat against the wood again and waited. Still no response.

  “Perhaps they’re sleeping something off,” Never said.

  “Keep quiet,” the other guard muttered.

  When the door finally opened, a man waved them in without apology or explanation, ignoring a curse directed at him by his fellows.

  A dim corridor of stone stretched to a distant staircase, twin lamps casting a pale glow across two figurines. When his escort reached the stair Never raised an eyebrow. Twin rearing stallions flanked the steps. Both brass and both polished to such a high sheen that he had to fight a childish urge to smear one with a handprint as he passed. Firmita was beyond fastidious – he was perhaps obsessed; why else ensure such attention to detail in what had to be a minor entrance to the manor? The man was hardly going to admit the Empress via such a passage.

  At the top of the stair Never was shoved along a narrow passage of wooden-panelled walls, again dimly lit, and finally into a small room with table, two chairs and a cold lamp, which Bu lit.

  Then the two closed the door and the sound of a key rattling in a lock followed.

  “No parting words, then?” Never asked.

  Silence.

  He paced. Firmita would doubtless arrive in moments, which meant Never would soon find himself within reach of another clue, thrown outside, or sent to the cells with the other priso
ner. Which was odd. Why did the Marlosi lord have a prisoner? Any serious crime would have been dealt with by the Imperial Guard. Was something afoot? If so, it sounded like the sort of business Never ought to avoid.

  But choices were few and far between these days.

  After years of dead-ends and rumours, he finally had something to go on.

  The manor held another clue: outside of the Imperial Palace, Firmita’s collection of relics from ages past was among the finest. Priceless. Of course, the gold didn’t matter. But the sunken city of Quisoa, if real, might hold another piece of the puzzle on the twisted road to discovering the truth behind Never’s curse.

  Perhaps even his true name.

  “One thing at a time,” he muttered.

  Footsteps approached. Never lifted his head expectantly as once again a key turned in the lock. The door swung open and two men entered – Diego, his face now set in an expression of neutrality, and the Lord of the Manor.

  Not a single silvery hair appeared out of place on the man’s head and his beard too, the colour of iron, had been trimmed to a fine edge. His sunken eyes were even ringed by just a touch of kohl – typically a woman’s embellishment, or, as was growing fashionable among the nobility it seemed, something only for the very rich. And very vain.

  He carried the fake relic, which he set upon the table before motioning for Never to sit.

  Never did so. “Thank you for seeing me.”

  “This is a fair forgery of an ancient rockfish relic,” Firmita said without preamble, his voice hard.

  “Ah.” Trouble.

  The man frowned. “You do not deny it. What was your purpose with this?”

  Never sighed, drawing it out. The truth would not win him any favours. “Gold. I am fallen upon hard times and this was my final ploy.”

  “I see.” The man stood. “I hope Pacela will grant you mercy. Nevertheless, you will be imprisoned until such time as I have to call the Imperial Guard.”

  “That is fair.”

  “What is your name?”

  “Never, My Lord.”

  The man stiffened. “You refuse me?”

  Never raised his hands, still bound. “Not at all, Lord Firmita. But that is my name: Never.”

  Firmita studied him a moment before motioning to Diego and spinning on his heel. The guard hauled Never back into the hall, where Bu and the other one waited with frowns. Escape was still a problem – but not the first. The first was time. Firmita appeared curious now, and that was a bad thing. Curiosity meant watchfulness and if the Lord rushed through whatever it was that kept him from sending for the guard or resuming questioning...

  Forced back along the dim passage and down a flight of stone steps concealed behind a hidden door, Never was led to another darkened room. Bu had brought the lamp and its glow revealed a row of cells – half a dozen perhaps. Few appeared used, as dust and webs covered many. A shape lay huddled in the corner of the nearest cell.

  Diego opened the adjacent cell, pushed Never inside, clanged the door shut then leant against the bars as he untied Never’s hands. “You did the right thing back there so let’s keep it that way, Never, or I’ll be back. Understand?” he said. “You keep your mouth shut.”

  Never offered no answer.

  “Did you hear what I said?”

  Still Never said nothing.

  “Answer me, scum.”

  Nothing.

  Diego’s nostrils flared and he reached for the cell door. Never grinned. “I thought you wanted me to keep my mouth shut.”

  The man shook his head and spat on the floor before storming out, taking his fellows and the light with him. Never chuckled as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Even breathing from the other cell suggested his fellow prisoner was not waking any time soon, since he – or she – hadn’t so much as stirred.

  There was little light to adjust to. Clouds seemed to have covered the moon and barely any starlight slipped through the dusty strip of a window high above. He could just make out the grass but other than that, there was nothing to see outside and little reason to climb up and look. Without losing a lot of body mass, he wasn’t squeezing through. Nor would anyone with a chest broader than a hands-width.

  Never gripped one of the bars – steel cold against his palms – and gave it a shake. Nothing. He moved on to the next one; same result. But when he reached the last bar his fingers found the grit of rust. “Ah.” Never twisted the bar, a grinding sound his reward. He continued to work, jerking it, then twisting further and stopping for periodic kicks.

  It was working.

  The bar was coming loose. He stepped back and aimed a good kick at it. A shock travelled up his leg but he kicked again, then returned to twisting and wrenching the iron. He soon worked up a sweat, removing his cloak and continuing until the bar gave a powdery snap at the base.

  “Perfect.” Almost too easy – that was the beauty of old cells. There was always a weak point.

  He retrieved his cloak and squeezed between the wall and remaining bar before creeping toward the faint suggestion of the door. He ran his hands along the wood but the handle would not budge. If he waited for someone to feed him he could escape but until then he was still trapped. Could he try wake his fellow prisoner? Break them out and ask for help?

  Light bloomed beneath the door.

  He fell back but the door was already being unbolted. It swung open and lamplight blinded him even as he shielded his eyes.

  A woman’s voice spoke, a hint of surprise within. “There you are. Quickly, come with me.”

  Chapter 2.

 
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