Eshente stepped through the night. Her footfalls beat a soft cadence against the backdrop of chirruping bugs and in the distance she could hear the soft grumble of a storm building. Clouds had been gathering overhead for some time and no moonlight shone through. It was mostly dark. Only a few households were still awake and even then, the light that spilled across the sidewalk was soft and pale; filtering through closed curtains before it could escape into the night. Eshe could hear sounds from within the buildings, but they were quiet sounds. The last of the dinner plates being dried and packed away. The soft chink of wine glasses. The sultry chuckle of a lover and the grumbling snore of someone already deep in sleep.
Eshe pulled up the hood of her cloak and plunged her hands into her pockets. It wasn’t cold. The night was pleasant enough for this late in the season, but Eshe should not have been out this late. Eshe should not have been alone.
A flap of leathery wings and a high pitched screech had Eshe jumping on the spot. She looked up, her breath hitching from the sudden fright. A massive, black mass moved in the palm fronds above her.
Eshe took a steadying breath.
Just a fruit bat.
The fruit bats were enormous and loud and slightly terrifying when they dropped from their perches before spreading their wings and swooping low, but ultimately, they were nothing to worry about.
Eshe let out her breath, shook her nerves free and started along the sidewalk once more.
She had not even made it five steps when a hand clamped over her mouth and an arm grabbed her waist. Eshe screamed, but the sound was lost against calloused fingers. She tried to pull away, but her attacker only held on tighter. Eshe was pressed into her assailant’s body. A body that was much larger than Eshe’s. Eshe screamed again. A hopeless act. She pulled her knees up to her chest. The sudden shift of weight threw the attacker off guard, but not enough. Eshe dropped to the ground. She felt the grip release, but she was too slow getting up. Too slow to scream for help. Hands grabbed for Eshe and she was ripped backward once more.Back into a wall of muscle. Back to the hand over her mouth. Eshe tried to fight, but her arms were pinned and her attacker wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. They held Eshe high now, her feet just skimming the ground and they were walking backward, taking Eshe to whatever hellish end they had chosen.
Eshe could not break free.
I’ll be at the palace, Cherise. There is no safer place. Don’t bother Unam. I’m sure he has far more important work than following me around.
Had it been only that morning that Eshe had spoken those words to her maid? A lie. She had not meant for the words to be a lie, but the princess had been different today. Every other summons to the palace had been for only an hour or two. Gossip over tea. A stroll in the gardens.
Those trips had been boring for Unam. Playing chaperone for the noble ladies was a waste. Eshe had only been trying to spare him the agony of small talk and tea cakes.
And now look at what had happened. If Eshe didn’t… if she…
Unam would never forgive himself. Cherise would think it her fault for not insisting enough.
A huge sob wracked Eshe’s body. She threw her arms about again, but the attempt was feeble. She knew she couldn’t win.
A hot breath squirmed against Eshe’s neck. Her attacker leaned in close. The voice was low. Barely more than a whisper. Eshe pulled her head away as best she could.
“Shh. The less you struggle, the easier this will be. I’m sorry.”
Eshe grimaced. What kind of an attacker apologised to their victims?
The kind that wants you docile.
Eshe whimpered again. They were off the main street and down some dark alley. No light filtered onto this sidewalk. No sounds of life echoed from beyond the walls. Eshe felt her captor stop. A brief thud of what must have been the back of their foot against a door and then the alley was fading from view as Eshe was dragged into a darkened room.
“Shh,” her attacker said again, but this time she was lowering Eshe to the ground. Their journey, it seemed, had come to an end. Eshe’s butt pressed into cold stone, but still the grip did not slacken.
“I’m sorry, again, that it had to happen like this, but we need to talk and I couldn’t have anyone knowing that we met.”
A pause. A sigh. “Please don’t scream.”
The hand lifted from Eshe’s mouth and the attacker stepped back, leaving Eshe sitting on the floor. Eshe scrambled to her feet and brought her hands up in loose fists. She had barely any combat training. Mother was horrified that Eshe had any at all and now, standing in this room, already defeated she understood that her father’s little compromise had been just that. Little. She hadn’t been prepared for this. Any of it.
You shouldn’t have to be Esh! – Her mother’s voice.
Eshe swallowed her fear and faced her abductor, but the room was dark and she spoke only to shadows.
“What do you want with me?” Her voice shook as much as her hands.
There was a small click and then light rushed into the room. Eshe threw a hand over her eyes and squinted at the sudden brightness. She heard more than saw the body shifting closer again.
“To talk,” was all the woman said. And she was a woman. A fact Eshe hadn’t been able to discern in the struggle or in the whispered words. Eshe blinked her eyes a few times as they slowly adjusted to the light and then she gasped.
“You’re… you’re one of Princess Dekali’s personal guard!”
Eshe stepped back. Had she done something wrong? Had she lost the princess’ favour this easily? The guard must have seen the look of panic that flooded Eshe’s face because she stepped forward and said. “I am not here on behalf of the princess.”
Eshe watched the guard wearily. One hand snaking toward a door handle that was much too far away. The other still hovering near her face where it was guaranteed to be useless. This woman was a giant. Impossible to forget. She was all lean muscle and sharp angles. Ash white hair cropped short to her skull and eyes that were a fierce, ice blue. McGallen. Princess Dekali had called her McGallen and Eshe had to admit that she had found it hard to stay focused on the conversation when McGallen was in the room. Her eyes had kept roaming toward the statuesque guard.
“Because I need your help,” McGallen finally said. She was watching Eshe intently, but she had made no further move.
Eshe swallowed. “With what?” Her eyes darted around the room, but what she was looking for, she could not say.
“A matter that I hope is of mutual interest.”
McGallen paused, took a deep breath and then launched into an explanation.
“I was watching you today, at the cages.”
Eshe felt an involuntary blush creep into her cheeks. She had been watching McGallen too, but that had been before McGallen had kidnapped her! Eshe schooled her emotions. McGallen continued to talk.
“I noted your… discomfort. You did not like what you saw.”
“I…” Eshe tried to think of some way to excuse herself, but McGallen spoke over her. “I will remind you that I am not here on behalf of the princess.” McGallen took a step closer. Her expression softened. A sadness crept across her features. “I share in your discomfort.”
Eshe dropped her defensive pose and looked at the guard. Really looked. She was tensed. Afraid. What must it be to admit to a noble woman, to anyone, that she did not approve of the Princess’ hobbies? It was Eshe’s turn to step forward.
McGallen closed her eyes for just a heartbeat. When she opened them, the sadness had been replaced by steel.
“The princess relishes in the suffering of those creatures. I do not. She thinks it sport to bait and tease them. As one of her personal guard…
I see these acts far more frequently than I can stomach them.”
Eshe swallowed hard. She shook her head. “I’m sorry McGallen. I have no power to stop it. You should know that.”
McGallen took a few more steps, closing the gap between them. “But you can. With help. With us. You can make the difference.”
Us. There were more of them. “But why do you need me?” Eshe asked.
“Because you’re a noble. You have connections.”
McGallen glowed. “With your help,” she said. “We can save the dragons from the Princess.”