Watchmirror

Prologue

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Please note that the opinions expressed in Watchmirror do not necessarily reflect the author’s. Please obey the law and act responsibly.


Amalia slid past a bickering couple and a juggler, ignoring the ugly feeling building in the pit of her stomach. She’d been waiting under the awning at the corner of The Loop and East Drebon Street for thirty minutes, but her friends had yet to arrive.

They were there for the parade, the first celebration after a long period of fear and horror. Finally, the great and terrible Black Mage Lothar, who had terrorized their city for months, was behind bars and on his way to the executioner. The city of Port Drebon breathed a collective sigh of relief.

She was wandering around the general area, keeping the shop where they were supposed to meet within sight. The street was crowded, the air thick with excited chattering. She couldn’t wander far, but it was better than standing still. She scanned the faces around her for sight of her friends, but they still weren’t here. People moved in clumps of three or five, talking amongst themselves.

Children pulled their parents towards vendors lining the sidewalk, each cart stuffed with sticky sweets. Couples and groups of friends congregated around stalls, snapping up foods and commemorative trinkets. On either side of the avenue rose buildings of brick and concrete, stones warmed by the sun. Brightly-colored banners flew proudly out every window, fluttering in the breeze.

They were probably just late. Jeptha was the sort of person who tried to appear like a reasonable adult, while in actuality, he was irresponsible and forgetful.  He always ended up arriving late or forgetting to bring his share of the food at parties. He’d insist he thought they were all arriving at another time, or that it was Amalia’s turn to bring the food. In spite of that, Jeptha was actually pretty popular. She guessed he just had one of those personalities. She knew he was coming with Philomena, so maybe they both ran late because of him.

Or maybe they went ahead without her. Her stomach soured at the thought. It stung, because she was so rarely in the city. She was usually at the family Manor, far removed from city life.

This was stupid. She should just go home. She didn’t want to be here. It was too loud and the only reason she’d agreed to come in the first place was to socialize. She’d been bogged down with stress and needed some time to reconnect, to ground herself.

The whole idea of the parade was distasteful; the Black Mage, Lothar, was a monster. He’d blown up three buildings with people in them. But making a spectacle out of his death like this, celebrating in the streets, it just seemed so ugly.

Her father had voted against the parade, of course. It was, he said, an incredibly risky and irresponsible idea. Lothar should be brought to justice inside the Port Drebon Prison, like all the other Black Mages. When that failed to sway the Judges, he’d put himself in charge, personally overseeing the security for the event.

“Amalia!”

She turned around and let out a breath of air. Relief.

“I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Jeptha called out. His dirty blonde hair was sticking to his forehead and his face was flushed.

“Hey, Jeptha.”

“Were you waiting long? I thought we were meeting at twelve.” They were supposed to have met at eleven thirty. Her lips quirked upwards. Of course.

“I just got here. Is Phil around?” she frowned. “I thought she was coming with you.”

He shook his head. “Something came up. She can’t make it.”

Amalia nodded. Then they should get up to the front of the crowd. Her father was head of the Bureau of Security, so he might be there. She knew he liked being personally involved, and it was good publicity.

“We’ll go on then?” she asked. “I want to get a good view.” He probably knew she didn’t want to get a good view of the prisoner, but it’d be rude to say she was looking for her father. It was like her Aunt Basileia always said: if you actually were important, then everyone already knows. Talking about it came dangerously close to boasting.

But she wanted her friends to see and admire him, anyway. A little reminder every once in a while never hurt anyone, and the Lord of an ancient and noble family, tracing their lineage back fifteen generations to the founding of their country, was something to be proud of.

Jeptha shrugged. “Sure.”

They started walking in silence. She was a little annoyed at Jeptha, now that the relief had finally worn off. She forced herself to stop frowning. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could call someone out on without looking graceless. She was a di Danti, and she was in public. Decorum at all times.

They stuck close together, winding around the groups of people talking, heading towards the main road. There were a number of watchguards standing about, on the look out for troublemakers. As they walked further, she noted buildings stretching on for half a block. Some were three or four stories tall.

There was a magic shop at the end of the block advertizing crystals and loops of metal. They were closed. Not all practitioners were Black Mages. In fact, Black Mages practiced an entirely different sort of magic. It wasn’t right that Black Mages gave the rest of them a bad name.

In between the buildings were glowing translucent barriers of magic that prevented anyone from slipping down the alleyways. It was one of the safety precautions set in place by the Council.

“How’s the townhouse?” Jeptha asked, breaking the silence. “Everything was still in boxes when we left.”

“I haven’t unpacked much yet.”

“It’ll feel more like home when everything is in its place.”

“I’ll get around to it.”

Amalia looked away. It wasn’t like she could really explain. She glanced back and saw Jeptha was staring at her, brow furrowed.

“It’s kind of a big deal, you moving out to the city, I mean.”

She nodded. “It is.”

“It’s a big change.”

“Yes, it isn’t what I expected.” She was up half of the night from the sound of people shouting in the street. Someone must’ve had a party. It was louder than the country, and occasionally pungent odors wafted up from the street.

“So, you pretty much kicked us out the other day.”

She frowned. “I didn’t intend for it to appear that way.”

“And you forgot to respond to the invitation,” he said. “I found out from your dad that you’d be here today.”

“Shit. I’m sorry.” She winced. It wasn’t on purpose.

“You know, moving, it can be stressful. And everyone handles stress differently, and that’s okay.”

“I’ve had a lot on my mind,” she said.

“But if it gets worse, you’ll talk to us, right? Because Phil’s pretty worried, and so is your dad.”

“I will,” she promised. “It’s a temporary thing.”

“Okay.”

“Did you want to see Lothar?” she asked, changing the subject.

“I don’t care.” He shrugged. “I’m just here for the music and the food.”

“Oh. Well, we don’t have to go to the front.”

“But you want to catch a glimpse of your dear old dad?”

She went red. “I mean, I see him at home. It’s just-”

He laughed, like it was the funniest thing he’d heard in his life, and linked his arm around hers, grinning. “Come on. We’ll go see your old man. Then we’re getting food.”

She smiled back. She needed this: her friends, laughing and joking, talking about nothing important. It was like the first breath of air after being held underwater for a long, long time.

“So why couldn’t Philomena come?”

“She wouldn’t say. She’s been all weird. Honestly, I’ve been wondering if there’s something going on between the two of you. You’ve both been acting kind of off.”

“I didn’t notice.” Her lips quirked up. “So you thought I was the safer of the two of us to ask?” Philomena had the worse temper out of the two of them, and took offense easily. That wasn’t to say she was a bad person. Phil was just sensitive.

“Pretty much.”

“I’ll ask her when I see her next.”

“Thanks.” Jeptha bit his lip. “So do you want to do anything after this?”

Amalia hesitated. She didn’t want to give Jeptha the wrong idea. It wasn’t like that between them. She didn’t want to say no, because she didn’t want him to think she didn’t enjoy spending time with him. On the other hand, she didn’t want to appear disingenuous. Maybe he was just asking her as a friend?

“That sounds fun. Maybe we can see if Phil’s done with whatever she’s doing by then.”

“Sure.” He shrugged. Jeptha didn’t look upset, so maybe it was okay.

“What do you want to do?”

“Don’t know. We could take the train up to Appleshire. I think there’s a festival this week.” He glanced over at her, noting her sour expression. “Or we could all just go back to my apartment and listen to some music.”

“That sounds nice. I think this fills my quota for crowds for a while.” Amalia thought she was more like her Uncle, in that way. Her mother was energized by social engagements and crowds of people, while Amalia found them exhausting. Her Uncle was serious and a bit solemn, avoiding social events when he could.

The closer they got to the front, the more crowded it became. People around them were shouting and bumping into Amalia and Jeptha. She gripped his arm tightly. She didn’t want to lose him in the crowd. A vendor stall was set up in the middle of the crowd, selling fruit juice. He must have set up there because people wouldn’t want to have to elbow through everyone to get to the food stands. It was clever. It was hot out and the crowd wasn’t making it any better. The juice was practically flying off the stand.

There was a loud roar, and Amalia could see the top of the prisoner’s carriage over the heads of the crowd if she stood on her toes. They’d cordoned off a section of the street for it and the guard to pass through.There was an entire squad of watchguards around it, protecting it from the angry mob, and protecting the crowd from the Black Mage inside it. She thought for a second she could see her father on one of the horses, but a burly man’s head blocked her view.

Jeptha tugged her arm, gesturing to go around the clump of people surrounding the stand. They could get a better view. They started maneuvering through the crowds.

“Excuse me, pardon me.” She said, as they slid past the loitering people, moving closer toward her father. Those around her glanced over briefly before going back to their conversations, ignoring them.

“Excuse me.” She said sharply. She wouldn’t shout, it was uncivilized. If they waited too long she’d never get to see her father. It wasn’t like she got to see him in a parade often.

A loud cheer distracted her from her train of thought.

Confetti was being shot into the air from the rooftops, raining down on the crowd. Amalia squinted up at the rooftop. There was something odd about–

A flash of light tore through the sky, like a glint of metal reflecting the sun spreading outwards. Then the fiery explosion blasted the heavens with a deafening roar, shattering windows, and sending brick and stone hurtling toward the ground. Amalia was hit with a blast of concussive force and saw white.

After that, she saw nothing at all.


 

Everything was silent. Amalia felt like there was something she ought to be doing, but she couldn’t think. It was all muddled, like she was underwater. She couldn’t see. No, that wasn’t right. Her eyes were shut.

When did she shut her eyes?

She opened them, then immediately regretted that decision. It was too bright, like she was looking into a sun. She tried to move, only to realize every muscle ached and her skin prickled with burns down her exposed arms. The back of her shirt was soaked through with something wet and sticky. More alarmingly, the back of her skull throbbed. She tried to remember what she had been doing.

The explosion, she remembered, as her brain slowly pulled together the pieces of her memory. The force of the blast must have hit anyone near the carriage carrying the prisoner.

She was lying in the remains of the vendor’s stall. Her hair was stuck together in clumps to the side of her face. It smelled sticky sweet. Juice ran down the back of her neck as she picked herself out of the ruins of the stall. It trickled down her arms and burned where it touched the scrapes.

She reached for her protective amulet. The crystal was dull. Great. It must’ve burned through all its power trying to protect her from the blast.

She slowly picked herself off the ground, using the crumpled frame of the vendor’s stall to support her weight. Her ears were ringing and the back of her head was pounding. The effort to stand sent a sharp jab of pain through her skull, and she almost lost her grip on the stall.

She gently prodded the wound. Her fingers came away bloody. She knew head wounds bled a lot, and it didn’t mean the wound was serious, but the sight of her blood made her nauseous.

Jeptha was with her. She needed to find him. Amalia leaned on the stall, scanning the ground. There was dust and debris everywhere. She could see people lying on the ground, unconscious, but Jeptha wasn’t among them.

Her breath caught. There was a piece of metal impaling one woman through the chest. Not unconscious. They were–

She had to find Jeptha.

A man was being supported by two others. His leg was covered in blood. Amalia looked away. People had their mouths open in silent screams, running from the site of the blast, desperate to escape the smoke and fiery debris that were flooding the streets.

They’re not screaming silently, she just couldn’t hear them.

It was probably temporary. Well, she hoped it was. She didn’t know anything about hearing loss. It hadn’t occurred to Amalia to read about it, just like she’d never read about head wounds or anything about anatomy. She grimaced.

That lack of interest could get her into serious trouble, now. Best case scenario was a minor head wound and temporary hearing loss, but she was pretty sure she had been standing closer to the middle of the road before the blast, which meant she was thrown through the air and hit her head hard. The protection amulet would have absorbed most of the energy, but it wasn’t enough to block all of it. That was why all the people around her were–

But Jeptha had an amulet, too. He’d be okay. But he’s forgetful. He might have forgotten to charge the amulet. He might be lying under debris right now, or even

Shut up, shut up, shut up! He wasn’t dead. He was somewhere in this area. She wished she could hear. He could be calling for help. But then again, would she be able to pick his voice out of all the other people who were, no doubt, screaming? Irrelevant. She couldn’t hear.

The dark spots distorting her vision weren’t making it any easier. He would be somewhere nearby, and was wearing a blue outer robe. It would stand out against the brick. She just needed to search for the blue.

The sick feeling in her stomach remained.

She needed to focus, but anytime she tried paying close attention to anything, her vision went fuzzy around the edges and the head wound throbbed. Ignore it. Keep going.

Every step hurt. The naked skin that was exposed to the blast, like her face and arms, were stinging with numerous tiny cuts. Her bones ached.

She walked shakily towards a large piece of debris, each step slightly more stable than the last. A street urchin wearing clunky goggles knocked into her, causing her to stumble. He was grasping the arm of a raggedy man whose hands were bound in metal. He was in a prisoner’s uniform. Oh shit.

The Black Mage Lothar. He was escaping! A surge of adrenaline shot through her, dulling the pain. All of this work, her father’s work, worth nothing if that man escaped.

And she didn’t think, not even for one second. She just raced after them, pausing only to grab the arm of a nearby watchguard.

“I know where Lothar is!” Her words sounded as though they were muffled, almost inaudible past the ringing. Still, it was an improvement. The damage to her ears likely wasn’t permanent if she was already able to distinguish sounds. A part of her noted how odd it was being unable to properly hear her own words. Another part of her wondered if she was just imagining the faint sounds. Minds were known to play tricks on people in times of stress.

She saw the watchguard’s mouth move. “What?” He couldn’t hear either. She tugged his arm, pointing toward the fleeing Black Mage and boy.

“Quickly! He’s getting away!” The watchguard glanced at his partner, who looked suspicious. She lost all patience.

“I’m Judge di Danti’s daughter! FOLLOW ME!” She shouted, flashing her signet ring. It was an identifying mark of her status and family name. They’d understand that. She didn’t even glance back to see if they were following her. She was a di Danti, heir of an ancient family, of course they were. Watchguards had standing orders to protect the families of Nobles during emergencies. They were supposed to keep her out of harm’s way. She would ask her father to excuse them from any punishment they’d be due for not evacuating her from the area immediately.

But what about Jeptha?

The watchguards were competent. If he was alive, they’d get him out of the area. If he wasn’t… well, then there was nothing anyone could do for him, anyway. She didn’t know how to help someone who was injured. This, she could do. She could save her father’s reputation. And her ears were recovering. The head still hurt but it was less painful than before. She’d be fine. If it was serious, she suspected she wouldn’t have been able to get up. That was how these things worked, wasn’t it?

Those few, precious, seconds cost her. Why hadn’t she just flashed the ring the second she saw the watchguards? She was losing time. Lothar and the boy had disappeared into the smoke. The two were running towards the alley, but the alleys were all blocked off. The main street would be monitored, and there were watchguards every few paces. They wouldn’t have gone down the main street to face the watchguards and they couldn’t duck into an alley. Where could they have gone? She was breathing heavily and her heart was pounding.

She wracked her brain. Anything, any clue would be helpful. Confetti was dropped from the rooftops. Of course, the insides of the buildings were all open for business, and most have back doors opening to the alleyways. They could have just ducked inside a building and left through the back entrance. It was the obvious solution.

She ran inside the nearest shop, ignoring the shopkeeper’s indignant shout as she rushed past him and out the back door, bruising her shoulder as she slammed into the door frame. Her reflexes were still suffering from the blast. The watchguards followed, and together the three of them burst into the alley.

She glanced both ways, and there he was, Lothar and the boy.He was limping, his black hair matted with blood.

“They’re there!” Lothar half turned, eyes widening in fear as he saw his pursuers. The boy didn’t look. The watchguard to Amalia’s right brought out his revolver in a flash.

A number of loud cracks rang through the air, the sound of gunshots.

Lothar staggered, a red bloom slowly spreading on his side. He stumbled into the boy before crumpling to the ground, clutching the wound.

The urchin let out a feral scream. He started tugging on the man’s arm as though to pull him up.

“NO! DAD! DAD! NO!” The boy sobbed. A balding man with a pot belly burst out of the backdoor of a nearby building, grabbing the boy by the waist and tugging him back, forcing him to run. “Put me down. No! You bastard, put me down! DAD!”  The boy kept screaming, but the balding man ignored him, dragging the boy as fast as he could away from Lothar, his father.

Amalia stopped in her tracks, staring ahead in shock. She didn’t know what she expected to happen when she called the watchguards to her, but this was not it. She wanted justice, she decided, her father’s justice. She couldn’t imagine her father shooting a boy’s father down in an alley.

A small part of her brain noted that she could hear again. It still sounded off, but oh, she could hear! See? She was fine. She would be fine. The other part of her viciously told that part to shut up. You’re not supposed to be relieved when someone’s been shot right in front of you.

The first watchguard cursed as he fumbled with his revolver while the second watchguard fired at the fleeing man and goggle boy. They started running after them. Amalia snapped out of her stupor.

“Stop! Stop shooting!” They looked to her in confusion, which was quickly turning to uncertainty and suspicion.

“What’s wrong, ma’am?”

“He’s just a child, don’t shoot him.”She turned back towards Lothar, who was lying in the alley, hands pressed to his side in an attempt to stop the bleeding. He was looking away from the watchguards, away from her, watching the boy and old man run. It was that expression, his wistful expression of longing and agony, that would be seared into her retinas permanently. He stopped being a deranged murderer and became a man. The boy and man turned a corner, out of sight, and Lothar let his head drop to the ground.

The first watchguard stared at her like she’d just grown a second head. “He’s a drek, they’re all dreks! I’m doing my job.”

But they stopped shooting and weren’t pursuing the boy. Amalia supposed they couldn’t. Watchguards traveled in pairs, and were required to always stay together. And, her brain helpfully provided as an afterthought, they had to protect her. She wasn’t going anywhere, so they couldn’t, either.

“You are not permitted to simply open fire. You must realize I will report you to my father. There are laws- procedures and protocols. They exist for a reason.”

“That’s cheap for you to say from your fancy manor while we’re on the streets fighting these monsters. Now get out of my way.”

“Why? What are you going to do?” She asked, turning to face them fully now, ignoring the few people who ran past them. Apparently others had the same idea, and were using the buildings to escape the smoke and dust.

“I’m going to execute the drek, what do you think I’m doing?” He lifted his gun to fire. This wasn’t justice. Another part of her brain, the part of her that was typically telling her to be more cautious, was screaming at her to stay quiet. She ignored it.

Amalia spoke quickly. “He will be executed soon enough, do not disobey your orders.”

“My orders are to kill dreks.”

“Your orders are to arrest lawbreakers, not execute them!” Her fists were clenched tightly at her sides. They were supposed to listen to her. She was in charge here, not them. She was the daughter of a Judge and heir to a noble House. Who the hell were these watchguards, anyway?

“Listen, lady, I don’t know who you are, because I’m starting to suspect you aren’t a noble, so you better lift your hands where I can see them, look forward, and don’t blink. Now.” The second watchguard was watching their rear, looking around with his weapon drawn, as though expecting a trap.

“My name is Amalia di Danti, daughter of Marion and Titus di Danti, heir to House di Danti. You obey my orders, not the other way around.” She stared down at them imperiously, and made no move to raise her arms.

“How the hell would we know that? And frankly, lady, this entire thing smells like a trap. What did you think? You’d get us all here and- and-”

“And do what?” she said contemptuously. “I lead you straight to your prisoner. He’s captured, now, under your command.”

“That’s exactly it! Children of nobles don’t run around hunting down criminals!”

“I- “ It was true. A week ago she never would have done it. “It’s what my father would want. His Bureau worked diligently to prevent this man from escaping. It’s a matter of honor.” Except that wasn’t true. She had embarrassed her family’s name, even if her father wasn’t aware of it. That’s why she was doing this. She was evening the score, making up for her failures. Her mother wanted her to honor the family name, prove that she was worthy to be heir. If this didn’t prove she was worthy, she didn’t know what would.

Neither said anything, looking at one another as though passing along some secret message. One was by Lothar and the second watchguard stood by her.

“And besides, it’s what any good citizen would do. If we see a crime, we must report it. It would be criminal for me not to do anything.”

“Okay. Okay, fine.” The first watchguard looked frazzled. “Now you need to step aside and let us do our jobs.”

“What, exactly, do you intend on doing?”

“Follow the law, which says to shoot the drek.”

“The law says no such thing!”

The first watchguard made like he was going to fire, so Amalia quickly stepped between him and Lothar, staring down the barrel of the watchguard’s gun.

Amalia’s heart was pounding out of her chest and her hands were clammy with cold sweat. They couldn’t shoot the daughter of a Judge. She kept repeating that to herself. It was illegal, more illegal that killing a drek, worthy of a death sentence if they were caught. She knew that, but the gun was still pointed at her and and it still had the potential to kill her.

The other part of her screamed to get out of the way of the man with the gun, but she couldn’t move her body. That boy’s father wasn’t going to die in an alley, surrounded by trash and broken bottles.

The other watchguard, the one that had been to her left, rounded on her. “You would die to protect a drek?”

“Of course not.” Her lips said, but she hadn’t taken her eyes off the gun, which the first guard had barely lowered. Her muscles tensed and goose bumps rose on her arms. “I just won’t stand by and let you commit a crime.” Her voice had a slight tremor to it. She hoped they hadn’t noticed.

“You’re committing a crime by getting in our way.” His face behind the visor was contorted in anger. All she could see was the face and the gun. She needed to calm down, but her muscles wouldn’t loosen and her spine wouldn’t relax.

“I’m doing what my father would want.” Her voice cracked. Her mouth was too dry.

The first watchguard sighed, rolling his eyes. “Idiotic little idealist.” He spat. “They blew up the Lowell Building! There are people dead thanks to this bastard.”

Amalia turned towards the first watchguard, disgusted. “Could you actually order someone to be murdered in cold blood? Look at him, he’s defenseless.” She wanted to say that it would make him no better than the dreks, because dreks were the only kind of people capable of killing mercilessly and without remorse. Everyone knew that. But it was really stupid to insult someone pointing a gun at you.

“Black mages are never defenseless. Who knows how many people this bastard’s sacrificed in profane rituals. Watch him.” The first watchguard gestured at Lothar. “He’s faking it. Any moment he’ll get up and run, then you can explain to your father how the Black Mage that’s terrorized Port Drebon got away.”

Alright. If an appeal to their morals wouldn’t work, how about an appeal to self interest?

“You will wait for my father to get here and you will put down your gun. As a matter of fact, I am saving you both your jobs. He would be incredibly angry with you, exposing his daughter to violence and death.”

The two looked at each other again, frowning. “Arthur?” Said the second watchguard.

The first watchguard, Arthur, lowered his weapon.

“Keep your guns out, but don’t shoot.” Amalia compromised. “Wait until my father gets here. If Lothar makes a move to escape, then you can shoot him.”

Someone coughed behind her. Lothar. She felt a flash of worry. He was going to bleed out on the street. This was pointless. Shooting him would be merciful- except she couldn’t just stand there and watch someone get shot. She doubted she could order them to help him, either. She really really wanted her father to get here. The pain from the cut on her head was intensifying and she needed to think.

“Hey!” Shouted a man.  Amalia turned to see two more watchguards running towards them. Finally, backup. It was over. They’d go and get her dad, and everything would be okay.

“What’s happened here?” Said the blonde watchguard. The new watchguards weren’t wearing their helmets. Amalia spoke before the two could get a word in.

“My name is Amalia di Danti, daughter of Marion and Titus di Danti, Heir to House di Danti.” She thought she ought to make it clear just who was in charge right away.

“I saw Lothar escaping, and I directed these two guards to subdue him. We are now waiting on further orders from Judge Titus di Danti.”

The blonde watchguard and his partner looked at one another. “Do you have proof you’re a noble?”

She thrust out her hand. “My signet ring.”

The blonde watchguard took one look and snorted, laughing. “Train your gun on her, Arthur. She’s no noble.”

What? No, of course she was- this wasn’t- this can’t be. They’re- how could they make such a- but they were trained to be able to distinguish between signet rings!

“What? Of course I’m a noble. I’m Amalia di Danti, daughter of Judge Titus di Danti.”

“Little Lady di Danti lives in her manor in the country. No one’s ever seen the girl. Did you really think you could fool us with a fake ring and some fancy clothes?”

His partner spoke up, sneering. “You’re just some drek trying to trick us! What’s your real name?” The watchgua- Arthur, quickly trained his gun on her, and Amalia’s heart sped up. She could hardly hear what they were saying. Dreks and a trick, something about dreks and a trick. I’m not a drek. I’m not- I don’t know any Black Magic!

“I am Amalia di Danti, daughter of Marion and Judge Titus di Danti, Heir of House di Danti. You will be severely reprimanded for pointing a weapon at me. If you wish to save your jobs, then put down your weapons!” Her voice went shrill at the end. She had to convince them. She was a di Danti. She was Titus and Marion’s child. She was noble.

“Look,” said the blonde watchguard, “we know you’re one of those sympathizers. You lost today. There’s no way out. Now move aside or we won’t make it quick.” His voice sounded like it was coming from far away.

“I’m not!” She thought, in a distant corner of her mind, that she might be hyperventilating. “I’m Judge Titus’s daughter, of the line of Marion di Danti.”

She couldn’t hear what they were saying anymore, it was being drowned out by a tidal wave of fear. She only heard words like Black Mage and lying and separatist.

For the second time in as many minutes, a gunshot tore the air. Amalia let out an inelegant shriek and spun around to see that the second watchguard had fired his revolver.

Lothar was lying limp, skull shattered from the shot at point-blank range. She hadn’t even seen the watchguard move. Amalia almost retched.They’d killed him. He’s not alive anymore. He was there just a second ago and now he isn’t. The second guard then raised his gun and aimed at Amalia. She froze, all thoughts of Lothar’s death fleeing her brain from sheer terror. Four pistols aimed at her. Just one could kill her, but this was four people convinced she was a monster, four guns which meant- which meant they’d all be waiting for the other to do it. If any one of them had even a shred of doubt, she could use it. Which one was on the fence? She had to figure out which one could be persuaded.

“I think we should kill you, too, imposter.” Sneered the second watchguard. A hysterical part of her mind noted that he sounded like a cartoon villain. Who said that? And he was out of the equation. He killed Lothar. There would be no empathy from him. Blonde guy was in charge, and the others listened to him. The partner just went along with whatever he said. Arthur was nervous, which was dangerous. Talking to him might just make him more nervous.

She looked the blonde watchguard in the eye, voice growing unsteady. “I am not a Black Mage. I swear to you. I am Amalia di Danti. Call my father here with your Handmirror. He’ll tell you.” Handmirrors. Communication devices that allowed you to see the reflection of the person who held the matching mirror. All of the watchguards had them and used hand signals to pass along messages. She could have just made the watchguard give her his, and she could have signaled to her father, told him where Lothar went. Why hadn’t she? Stupid girl, wanting to impress her father.

“What, do you think we’re fools? He’d kill us for sheer stupidity.” Said the blonde one’s partner. “Besides, don’t you know you’re only making it worse for yourself? Impersonating the daughter of a Judge is treason.” She wondered what was worse than being murdered, and her brain immediately shut down that line of thought. The blonde one just looked exasperated, dismissive.

“No! Look at the signet ring. I swear to you, it’s genuine. Look!” She tried rubbing off the dirt. That was why they hadn’t recognized it. Blood and dirt on her hands. Her blood. Her blood would be on the ground. She couldn’t wipe it off, her hands were shaking too hard. She felt like she should be crying but no tears would come.

She was losing it. She couldn’t focus like this.

“Just shut up and get on the ground.”

“I’m not a drek!”

The second watchguard fired a shot into the air. “I said get on the ground!”

Her legs were shaking too much. She couldn’t move. “Please please just listen to me…” she squeaked out.

“I won’t say it again.”

“Would you please just listen to me!” She raised her hands in the air, obviously disarmed. Arthur was her only hope. He was the only one who wasn’t completely convinced. A mad gamble only made when one has little to lose.

“I know you’re scared, I am too. The explosion, everything– but we can’t just fall back to violence every time we’re scared. So please, put down your weapons. My father will be here any moment, and he’ll take care of everything.” Appeal to a higher power. He wanted to be told what to do, to have the decision taken out of his hands.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” The partner sneered, “he’s going to take care of us? What do you think, you’re going to kill us?” Her eyes widened with fear.

“No, no. That’s not what I said.” She realized her voice was hysterical, but she felt like she was out of control.

“Don’t listen to her anymore. I’ll bet you ten to one she set the explosion.”

“Just get on the ground!”

“I can’t, I can’t- I can’t move.”

“GET ON THE GROUND!”

“Please don’t. Please. Don’t kill me. I promise you, I’m not lying. Please, just put the guns away.” Her hands were cold and shaking. The adrenaline pumping through her system was useless. She couldn’t run and she couldn’t fight.

“And give you time to work your wickedness?” The watchguard sneered. “I think not.”

“I swear! I’m begging you plea–”

A gunshot rang out across the alley, and a second body joined Lothar’s on the ground.


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