The streets just outside of the city of Izkirka are empty and the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. Not a good sign, Rahda. The air crackles with static electricity, as if an electrical storm is only moments away.
Up ahead, down the deserted road, I see the heavily gilded and ornamental arch that usually permits—or denies—access into the capital city.
I say “usually” because the arch’s gate is strangely missing.
The last time I was in Izkirka, which was several months ago, the gate was so heavily guarded I worried that one of the wardens might shoot me just for looking at her funny.
In heavy silences, my ears tend to make up noises, which often puts me further on edge, and tonight it doesn’t help that the cobblestone streets are barren of life—both human and artificial.
Customarily, Izkirka is a robust city bursting at the seams with singing romeos, personal pleasure servants, half-humans, mutts, and mechanized robots. Each corner should be a battle zone as competitive sellers peddled push carts full of food, hydration patches, sun vitamins, faux-meat kabobs, sticky sweets, and fruity cigarettes.
The latter scent generally carried for blocks and might linger for days.
Not now. Not tonight. All I can smell is musty air, rusted metal, and my own sweat.
I send a small prayer to the Goddess. In return, a small chill runs down my spine.
I slip my hand beneath my robe and palm the dagger hidden there. Its leather sheath is warm in my hand. Tonight I’ll need my wits about me.
My guess is that this part of Izkirka has been empty for at least two days, if not more.
My black, lace-up boots scuff the thick ash covered streets, which are imprinted with other shoe impressions and the wheel lines of robots and small, push carts.
My footsteps faintly echo against the metal buildings on either side of the street.
Just as the last traces of daylight fade behind me, the warm wind picks up wafts of charcoal dust, which swirls around my boots and the hem of my robe. In front of me, the footprints and wheel impressions disappear as the dust blankets the surface.
It’s not very strong—the sun—and even on the brightest days, it never fully penetrates the ever- present gray clouds above Izkirka. No trees, flowers, or plants.
I glance up at half-built, rusted buildings. Even though their surfaces are coated with dried charcoal dust, the glinty material still reflects the glow of the setting sun and two white moons that weakly glimmer through a gap in the dense clouds.
On the tops of several buildings, radio signal repeaters spire several feet high in order to allow a greater range of communication frequencies between the capital city and the rest of the continent.
Pools of sweat run down my face and I use the sleeve of my fabriskin robe—a thick wool material woven with metal, and leathered, human skin—to wipe the sweat from my eyes. Even in during the hottest months of the year, which, honestly, is most of the year, I wear the robe.
The enhanced fabric protects me from the acidic, black rain that sometimes comes without warning, and the robe’s material is strong enough to keep a dagger from piercing my skin.
I am not a stranger to the occasional dagger aimed my way.
Tonight I leave the front of the robe open. It’s as hot as Hades Rocks right now, but I like to live a little dangerously. I mean, I’m about to meet the man everyone calls the Dark Prince.
Meet may not be right word. Summoned is more accurate.
Even though I have the words memorized, I dig out the twice-folded note from my trousers’ pocket and, using a red penlight, I read it again.
“The coveted position of research assistant has become available within Prince Roland Rexus’ court in Izkirka. Prince Rexus requests that Miss Rahda Plesti make herself available to be interviewed for the position at sundown in two days time. Other than small, personal effects, bring nothing. If accepted, everything, to include a wardrobe, will be provided on site. The prince looks forward to meeting Miss Plesti.”
I refold it and place the note and the penlight back in my pocket. My hand shakes as I do so. I’m nervous and I feel stupid for feeling nervous.
Knock it off, Rahda.
I look behind me and find small comfort in the tall trees that I journeyed through yesterday and today. Beyond the blue spike forest, and at the bottom of the mountain range that naturally divides the continent in half, sits the old city of
Aschalle is a city known for science, meditation, and religious study.
I already miss Aschalle and its leader—a man named Avos—an old man I both respect and fear. But he is my mentor. I trust him and, in my opinion, trust is more important than any other emotion. Even though a pang thumps deep in my heart, I do not want to go back. My mentor often sends me away for weeks at a time to do his dirty work.
I keep telling myself that this job is no different, that feelings have no place in the equation, but I know that this one is different. That things are about to change, but I don’t know if it’s for the better, or for the worse.
Sometimes there is no difference.
The wind picks up again, whipping the hem of my robe angrily around my boots. Dust scatters away.
A storm’s coming, and fast.
I jog left, out of the dry, dusty street, and duck under the shabby, pockmarked awning of a severely rusted building. I glance at the bright green signs displayed there, which are written in Patroxi, a half-human, half-alien language. Not all of the signs have words—not everyone can read Patroxi. Most signs depict very detailed drawings of the offered services.
Food, clothes, drugs, and sexual favors.
Not surprisingly, the last offered service has the largest number of signs. Patroxi have the gender parts for both male and female sexes, so their clientele can be rather extensive.
Got to love convenience stores. Go in for a pack of smokes and come out with a smile.
The wind picks up again and this time, a clap of thunder crashes overhead. Swirling gray-black clouds gather like a thick, impenetrable funeral veil, and any second now, it’s going to pour.
A noise distracts me and I hear commotion from within the Patroxi convenience store.
The patroness—a tall, thin Patroxi half-human, with orange and black braids and attired in a vibrant teal-colored fabriskin robe—looks me up and down, as if taking stock of what I can and cannot afford.
Her eyes match the color of her robe and I have a hard time looking away from those colorful depths.
“We have many services available to young women,” the patroness says pleasantly.
While my fabriskin robe is well made, it’s several years old, and since the summons said I couldn’t bring anything more than personal effects, I have nothing else on me to indicate what my purchasing prowess might be.
Not that I wanted to buy her services. She smiles at me.
“I’m not interested in that,” I answer in her own tongue, pointing skyward. “I need shelter from the storm.”
Even with my robe on, I do not want to be caught in the rain when it comes down.
She follows my gesture and looks up at the sky.
“Pity,” she says, her tone now unsympathetic. “No money, no entry.”
Her smile turns into a scathing, black sneer.
Her features darken. Her face shifts, uncoagulates, turns translucent, and then hardens into a mask- like shell, almost like a battle helmet.
Her slim, gleaming fingers pluck something from within her robe: an amber-colored blade. She’s not close enough to strike, but when her long arm swings at me, I jump back and away from the awning.
Overhead, another crack of thunder vibrates my insides, and I attempt to reason with the patroness.
“Just for a few minutes, please,” I say.
“Be gone,” she hisses, waving her small weapon around. It’s more of a blustering move rather than threatening.
She sheaths her blade, unhooks the awning, and brings it flush against the metal wall. I hear a series of locking sounds coming from the inside just as the first acidic drop hits my shoulder.
It makes a sizzling sound against the fabric. I pull the robe’s hood over my head and secure the front.
The electric charge in the air heightens, and the smell reminds me of corroded batteries.
Black viscous droplets scatter in front of me, splashing into the dust. Bits of black ice smack the ground, ricocheting like tiny pebbles.
Looking into the city, I can see the topmost part of the palace blending into those dark clouds.
I’m nowhere near my destination. Even if I sprint, I won’t make it before I’m drenched. Waiting may not work, either, since the storm might last for days.
I’m already late—the summons said to be at the palace at sundown—but I don’t want to meet the reclusive prince looking like a wet mutt.
Above me, like a double dose of ominous
warnings, the sky rumbles with deafening thunder, and sparkles with silver ribbons of lightning.
Left without other options, I run down the street, pass through Izkirka’s gate-less arch, and make my way through the empty streets to see Prince Rexus—the man I’ve been in love with since I was thirteen years old.