The City of Veils – S. Usher Evans

“I’ll have your money tomorrow, I promise.” “See, that’s a problem, because you promised Lord Beswick you’d have it tonight.” The man struggled against the giant, pig-faced guards who kept an iron-clad grip on his arm. “Pplease, give me more time. I need more time.” Ignacio, a tall, thin man with a pencil mustache, sighed dramatically. I didn’t know the specifics of what the shopkeeper owed, but it didn’t matter. If I knew Ignacio, one of Lord Beswick’s most ruthless lieutenants, there would be no pleasing him. Leaning over the ledge of the roof, I counted the guards again. Two held the shopkeeper, another had his young son, and the fourth stood behind his boss. On a good day, I could take two—maybe three, if they were particularly slow. But four? That would require a little help. Reaching into the cloth sack beside my black boots, I dug around for something I could use. Knockout powder could work, but I didn’t have enough for the entire crew. Still, if I could incapacitate two or three of the guards, it would give me enough time to take down the rest.

Another wail pierced the night, and I returned to the ledge to scope out the scene. Ignacio had procured a knife, presumably to chop off one of the man’s fingers. No—his son’s. The boy was barely ten, and the source of the wailing as one of the guards held out his hand. Four guards and two victims made this more complicated, but I couldn’t let them maim an innocent child. My fingers closed around a hard ball at the bottom of the bag. I hesitated only a second then lobbed it to the street on the other side of the building. A loud explosion followed, with a plume of black smoke billowing up into the night sky. “What was that?” Ignacio asked. He nodded to the two guards furthest away.

“Go check it out.” Two of the guards peeled off, and I followed them on the rooftop, attaching the bag of knockout powder to my small crossbow. I knelt on the edge and aimed for a spot just above their heads. The arrow sailed through the dark air, sticking into the brick side of the building. The bag ripped and a small stream of powder poured out. Like fools, both men walked over to investigate, and shortly thereafter, fell forward onto each other, sound asleep. They were large, so I didn’t know how long the powder would last. Another wail echoed from the victims, and I hurried back to Ignacio and the shopkeeper. Everyone’s appendages were intact, but not for long. I wrapped the bag of tricks around my shoulders then adjusted my cloak.

Curling my fingers around the hem, I leapt over the ledge. Air gathered in the sewn-in pockets, and I gracefully floated to the ground, landing in a crouch between Ignacio and his victims. Slowly, I rose, letting Ignacio take in the full effect. “You again?” he scoffed. “Didn’t you learn your lesson after the last time?” “I considered that a tie,” I replied, lowering my voice to a whisper. “Three of your men needed help walking away from it.” “How is that a tie?” Ignacio said. I smirked and untied the cloak and bag from around my neck, letting them fall to the ground. “Because you walked away at all.” “We don’t have time for this,” he said to his goons.

“Make her bleed.” They rushed to me, but I was faster, yanking a length of metal twine from my belt and swinging it over my head. The two weighted balls on the end gave it momentum, and as I released it, the ends tangled around a guard’s legs, tripping him. I used his falling body as leverage to boost me into a flying kick toward guard number two. Before I could land my blow, he grabbed me by the neck, pushing me upward as black spots danced in my vision. With a cry, I slammed both my elbows into the inside of his forearm, and he released me. I dropped to a crouch, flinging my leg out and chopping him down like a tree. He fell onto his back, and with a swift kick of my foot, he was out. I spun, pulling my knives out of my belt, ready to take on Ignacio himself. But the bastard had run, leaving the shopkeeper and his trembling son in the corner of the alley along with his two goons, who were out cold.

I released a soft curse as I unwrapped the weighted twine from around guard number one’s legs (kicking him once more in the face to make sure he stayed out). It would be hard to find Ignacio again. “T-the Veil!” the shopkeep cried. “I can’t even begin to thank you for what you’ve done. I thought you were a myth, but this, tonight—” “What does Beswick have on you?” I asked quietly. “He’s my landlord,” he replied, stroking his son’s hair. “But with the long winter, we haven’t had the produce we normally get from the Kulkans. And I’m…” He shivered. “I’m ten gold pieces short this month.” That was usually the case.

I walked to one of the goons and found his coin purse on his belt. “From the weight of it, you’ll probably have enough for a few months of rent until you get back on your feet,” I said, tossing the purse to the man. “In the meantime, you should probably find a new place to live. And perhaps leave this area until the goons wake up.” He nodded, holding the bag close to him. “Thank you, Veil. I’ll tell everyone what you have done. The city is safer thanks to you.” I reached down to grab my cloak, tying it around my neck and replacing the hood over my head. I gave the man and his son one flash of a smile before dashing toward a stack of crates, and ascending to the rooftops once more.

A bright, full moon loomed overhead, providing the only light I needed to travel across the rooftops soundlessly. The tile was still warm from the sun, which had set hours ago. Sweat gathered under the cloth mask around my eyes, both from the air and from the fight. Summer hadn’t yet arrived, but the nights were growing thicker with humidity. Soon it would be downright miserable, with no escape except to dive into Forcadel Bay itself. I continued my hunt for Ignacio, although I knew it would probably be fruitless. Most likely, he’d slithered back to his boss’s hideout, licking his wounds, and out of my reach. Lord Beswick was neither high-born nor high-class. He was nothing but a common criminal, a man who’d built himself an empire on the backs of the most vulnerable. Beswick had been mostly immune to prosecution.

No matter how many of his henchmen I placed at the feet of the captain of the king’s guards, he continued to deal shadily with merchants and threaten innocents—cashing in on King Maurice-Pollox Archer Lonsdale’s lack of control over his domain. I swallowed, a bit of unease creeping through my brain. The king had died three weeks ago, and his funeral would be next week. Even though he wasn’t my favorite person, it seemed wrong to disparage the dead, especially when they hadn’t yet been buried. Beswick, on the other hand, I would readily disparage at any given moment. He was ruthless, extracting exorbitant rents from everyone, like the man I’d just saved. And then, when the tenants could no longer put food on the table, Beswick would loan them money and make them work it off as part of his criminal underground. It was a vicious cycle of poverty that was difficult to break. I did what I could to help the citizens fend him off—whether it was a few gold pieces to help with the rent or just beating back the goons who terrorized them—but it was like trying to defeat the tide. The only way to end the cycle would be to remove Beswick himself.

Unfortunately, he had a lot of high-powered friends. Taking him down required more than beating him up in a back alley and dropping his crooked ass on the doorstep of Captain Mark, who ran the king’s guard in the city of Forcadel. It had become clear to me these past few months that the only way to permanently get rid of Beswick and his kind would be to gather enough evidence to charge him with a crime—and not petty crimes like theft and violence. I’d have to find something big. Like treason. There were rumors that he’d been illegally importing goods from the neighboring countries, selling them to Forcadel merchants at a high markup, and pocketing the difference. Screwing our own citizens was bad enough, but it was prohibited for any businessman to sign international treaties without the express permission of the king. The only thing I needed was proof. Tonight, I’d been following Ignacio and hoping he’d lead me to Beswick’s bookkeeper, Eric Poole. I had a feeling the money man would have what I needed.

But now, the sun was peeking over the rooftops, a sign that my nightly patrolling was done. Tomorrow, I would don the hood and try again, as I’d been doing every night for the past three years. As quietly as I could, I ascended the perfectly-placed crates on the side of the butchery I called home during the day, climbing into an open window. My dark room held very little—a wardrobe with a few tunics for the day, a tub for washing myself and my weapons, and a mattress. There was already a form sleeping there—Tasha, the butcher’s son. We had a nice arrangement—he never asked where I disappeared to (nor anything else about me), and on occasion, he gave me a few minutes of stilted lovemaking. To him, I was simply Larissa, the mysterious girl who swept the floors in exchange for a room. I undid my cloak and unwrapped the mostly empty pouch of tools from my hips, hiding both under a loose floorboard, along with a spare mask and my beautiful sword. I nudged the snoring Tasha out of the way and took my spot on the mattress next to him. Just as I drifted off to sleep, voices outside the still-open window grabbed my attention.

It was too early for his parents to be up and about. Careful not to wake Tasha, I crept from the bed and retrieved my sword and mask. I swept out of the room, landing with a soft thump on the crates outside my window. There was a crowd of royal guards in the alley—all I needed to see before I took off along the rooftops. A chorus of cries followed my leap onto the next building. Before I could take two steps, disembodied hands grabbed my wrists, legs, ankles—and no matter how much I struggled, I couldn’t break free. My sword dropped from my hand as a bag fell over my head. A tremor of fear rumbled through me. Had Beswick sent for me? Was this the end? I’d barely spent eighteen years on this world. No, I wouldn’t go out that easily.

Even captured, I still had my wits. I let them carry me, deciding to save my energy for the right moment. I wouldn’t get very far shackled with what sounded like a horde of guards, but I could certainly try. Finally, they placed me on a seat and removed the bag. I blinked in the dim light. My mask was still on, but I didn’t know how long that would last. The handcuffs were removed, and I gingerly rubbed my wrists, calculating my next move as I furtively glanced at my captor. Captain Mark’s young second-in-command, Felix Llobrega, walked to the other side of the table, the handcuffs swinging in his hands. A man in his mid-twenties with short-cropped black hair, he wore a satisfied smirk on his thin lips as he settled in the seat across from me, his dark brown eyes sparkling with something like victory. “Good morning,” he said.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” I rolled my eyes. “With a side of poison, I assume?” He smiled, giving him something of a wolfish look. “Now why would I poison the princess of Forcadel?” Chapter 2 I clenched my jaw shut, inhaling then exhaling deeply. Then, painfully, I reached behind my head to untie the mask. It fell to my lap, and I felt naked. But there was no hiding my identity anymore. Not in this room, anyway. “How long have you known?” I asked, after a moment. “We’ve never not known, Your Highness.” My title sounded more mocking than respectful.

“After all, a mask doesn’t hide much. And you haven’t changed since running out on your wedding five years ago.” I begged to differ. Back then, I’d been a scared thirteen year old and I’d accumulated a few more scars since. But I was more surprised he’d bothered to remember my face. In my youth, he and my brother had been best friends, and considered me more a thorn in their side. “I suppose August sent you?” I said casually, making a big show of placing both my boots on the table. “He wants to continue what my father started? Marrying me off to the most politically advantageous lord.” “Your brother is dead.” My feet dropped to the floor with a loud thud.

“What? When? How?” My brother and I weren’t particularly close, as there were nearly five years between us. But, more importantly, with my father gone, he was to be king. And with August dead as well… “No,” I said, standing up. “I’m not—” “Please, sit down,” Felix said. “I know this must be a shock to you.” Shock didn’t even come close. Here I thought I was being arrested—potentially having to claw my way out of the dungeons. And now they wanted me to sit on the throne. My stomach threatened to come to the surface, but I swallowed it. There was no need to panic yet.

Perhaps they just needed my signature to move onto the next warm body. I glanced at Felix, who actually looked sympathetic. Not a look I’d seen on him before. I needed more time to plot my escape, so I asked, “Why haven’t I heard about August’s death?” “Because it happened two nights ago,” Felix said. “The Council knows, but we haven’t announced it to the kingdom yet. Not until we had you.” “You don’t have me yet,” I said, continuing to pace. My brother dead, my father dead, my kingdom without a Lonsdale to rule it for the first time in three hundred years. Because I sure as hell wasn’t up to the task. “How did he die?” “In his sleep,” Felix said.

“Same as your father.” My footfalls stopped. “And has it killed anyone else? Servants? Maids?” He shook his head. “Poison, then,” I said, running my hand over my face. “Do you know who’s responsible?” “We have theories,” he said. “We can discuss that later. The point remains that whoever did it assumed there would be a power vacuum. But we have you, so—” “And one slip of a flask into my morning porridge and I’m dead as well,” I said with a grimace. If I was going to die, it was going to be on the end of a sword, fighting for my city or someone who needed saving. Not the victim of some regicidal maniac.

“We are taking precautions,” Felix said. “I promise we won’t let anything happen to you.” “I’m sure you said the same thing to August.” He stopped, his mouth falling open. “I’m sorry?” “Your track record speaks for itself, Lieutenant,” I seethed. “Two kings dead under your boss’s watch.” The corner of his mouth turned upward, but there was no humor in it. “That’s Captain Llobrega now. Mark has been fired.” My gaze dropped to the shiny badge on his breast, signaling his new position overseeing the elite soldiers that guarded the castle and the royal family.

“And as to surviving, our heir apparent seems perfectly capable of keeping herself from ingesting poison.” “You don’t have an heir of anything,” I muttered. “I can decline your request. I don’t have a lot of love for the throne.” Felix’s gaze never left me as I paced the room. “And yet, you’ve been here all this time, protecting Forcadel.” “My mistake. Had I known you knew I was here, I never would’ve come back.” This lunacy needed to end, and quickly. I could easily fight off Felix in this room, but how many guards waited outside? “Brynna,” Felix said, coming to his feet.

“Your kingdom needs you. Why not protect it as queen, instead of behind a mask?” I hated how much that tactic worked on me. I needed to stall until an escape plan came to me. “So what now? I just walk into the Council’s meeting room and become queen? And what are you planning to tell my father’s court about where I’ve been? I’m sure they don’t know about The Veil.” “We leave for the castle now, and I’ll formally introduce you tomorrow afternoon,” he said, walking to the door and resting his hand on the knob. “You’ll need your rest before you face the Council. And to prepare.” More time—I needed more time. “May I have a moment to collect my things?” “And give you a chance to run?” The son of a bitch actually smiled. “Do you really think me that dumb?” With no other options, I followed Felix out of the small room and regained my bearings.

They’d dragged me into a fabric shop across the street from the butchery. No less than twenty guards surrounded a dark carriage, all of them armed to the teeth. If I was going to run, now was my chance. Felix pressed a firm hand on my shoulder. “Don’t even think about it.” “Think about what?” He tightened his grip in what I assumed was a comforting gesture. “I promise, it won’t be as bad as you think. We’ll help get you acclimated to your role.” “How very generous of you.” The commotion had awoken the neighbors, some of whom were openly gaping out of windows above.

My name was on their lips, but the name I’d given them. Larissa the blood sweeper. Perhaps they thought I was being arrested for sweeping too much blood. Felix and I spoke no more as I sat in the carriage, the weight of panic pressing on my chest like a stone as we lurched forward. I was still looking for options to escape, knowing they’d all be futile, but needing to keep my mind busy. I pulled the fabric back from the window, the vast, white-stone castle looming in the distance. It reminded me of a prison, with tall spires that stretched into the night sky. My musty mattress at Tasha’s side had always seemed more welcoming. “I also shouldn’t have to say this, but your nightly activities as the Veil will have to end,” Felix said. “I can take care of myself, and being queen is mostly a figurehead position,” I replied, giving him a look.

“None of that precludes me from continuing to protect the city.” “You mean, besides the fact that vigilantism is illegal?” He snorted. “It’s dangerous. We need our queen alive. And we can’t do that if you’ve broken your neck falling off a roof or been bloodied up by one of Beswick’s goons.” “Well, aren’t you just so fortunate that I haven’t fallen off a roof yet?” I said, ignoring the fall off a roof that had broken my arm last year. That was beside the point. I crossed my arms over my chest. “I suppose you’ll be arresting Beswick today?” “On what charges?” he asked. “Being a general creep?” “Running illegal trade deals, bullying, preying on the poorest in our city.

Or don’t you care about any of that?” “I care if my queen and Council tell me to care,” he said with something of a meaningful look. “And while the former seems invested, I think you’ll find the latter to be something of a hurdle.” I sighed. “All the more reason you should let me take him down under the mask. I promise you, I’m very close.” “Sure you are.” “Did I or did I not deliver Chiara Raker and Zita Oriola last year?” I replied, lifting my chin. Two very big illegal importers, and two nice feathers in my cap. “All that lovely evidence deposited at your boss’s doorstep. Clean conviction, too.

” He cast me a look. “Thank you, Brynna, for the assistance. But Beswick isn’t some low-level slumlord. He’s a dangerous man, and you’d do well to keep away from him.” “Then get around to arresting him. You’re captain now, you can do that.” “I’ll get right on that,” he drawled, casting me a tired look. “Just as soon as I have enough evidence.” The carriage came to a halt and the door opened, revealing Felix’s guards. He stepped out first and extended his hand to me, but I ignored it.

I could get out of a carriage without needing help; I wasn’t that delicate yet. We entered the dark castle through the servants’ quarters, I assumed to keep the whispers of my arrival quiet until the morning. Felix and two female guards escorted me up the stairs to one of the tall towers. He opened the door, leading the three of us into an expansive room with a front sitting area, complete with table, and another door that probably went to the bedroom. “This is your suite,” Felix said. “You’ll have your meals here and will remain in this room when not escorted by myself or a member of my guard.” “My prison cell, you mean,” I said, walking to the window and gazing down the stone tower. Far below, the guards moved like ants in the early morning light. Even worse, the stone was smooth around the window. I could find footholds, but not many—not enough to get me safely to the ground.

“We will have a tailor this morning,” Felix said behind me. “You’ll be fitted for a wardrobe appropriate for your position. After that, we’ll introduce you to the Council.” “Great. They’ll know my face so they can kill me.” The room was getting hotter as my chest tightened, so I pressed my forehead against the cool glass. “I told you. I won’t let that happen,” Felix said, reaching over my head and pushing against the glass until the pane opened. A cool wind touched my cheeks, and some of the tightness left my chest. “Can I sleep on the roof, at least?” I asked, turning my head upward as I sat on the sill and leaned out.

Felix grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back inside. “Please don’t. Remember what I said about breaking your neck?” I bit my tongue instead of firing off another retort. It was late, and I wasn’t in the mood for another argument. Besides, with the other window open, I had a nice view of the sunrise. “Get some rest,” he said, walking to the door. “You’ll need it.” And suddenly there was silence.

.

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