My idea of fantasy is heavily influenced by Old Masters (Moorcock, Howard, Tolkien), and Older Masters (Spenser, and others unnamed and unknown). I do add something of my own sensibility that can at times undermine some of the tropes. I am unapologetic in this.
This is a very brief opening to something that will likely be a novella. I know the bite-sized portioning of novellas is not very popular but as a thing is, so it is.
The Emperor’s Bane
by Desmond Manny
Knowing she need be both quick and silent was not enough. Many times, as she darted through narrow passages and alleyways long forgotten, her need for secrecy was overwhelmed by her fear of capture. The occasional pile of refuse was toppled, or the huddled beggar trod upon, a sure sign to her pursuers of her passage. Though she faltered from fatigue she did not dare to stop. Any risk could be braved if only she were fast enough. Her life and very soul accounted a price worth paying for the precious bundle she clutched closer to her as she twisted sideways to pass between low, narrow buildings crowded together. Her haste caused her to scrape herself on the stone walls thereby building upon the collection of bruises, nicks, and cuts she’d acquired as the long pursuit wore on. It would be worth it if only she succeeded. May her life-blood spill upon the rough-hewn stones if her charge could only reach its destination.
Heart thrumming in her chest, each breath escaping in a gasp that formed glittering clouds in the cold night air, she pressed on. She scrabbled over a short wooden barrier and came out of the maze set by the simple structures of the Beggar’s District unto a wider thoroughfare. Pink-shaded lanterns lined the road in either direction and were mirrored in pools of radiance from the freshly washed cobblestones that lined the second of the city’s two main roads, the Rose Way. Running west to east it was used for general commerce and heavily trafficked by merchants and gentry during the day. The Night Watch had already completed their first patrol this way if the street washers had seen to their cleaning. Only the Rose Way, and its sister street running north to south, the Tulip Road, were cleaned so meticulously. As one grew nearer to the center of the city the concentric rings that made up its districts gave way to the bungalows and estates of the elite until one reached the palace of the Emperor Thom, which had once been the palace of a king. Across from her were the stalls and storefronts of the Merchants District, which divided the rich and powerful from the poor, a commentary from the city planners on the natural order of civilization.
Windows were shuttered and dark all along the road. Fearing her pursuers and the openness of the road the woman darted into a pool of shadow. She placed a hand to steady the bundle and hearing no sounds of pursuit proceeded more cautiously. If all were well, if not all of the others had been compromised, there would be help waiting for her. More importantly, there would be safety however brief. Long practice meant that when she was not fleeing like a scalded cat she could be quite silent. Acquired skill served well now as she moved from fishmongers stall to potter’s shop toward her goal.
Finally, she came upon her destination. There was nothing but darkness from the building and fear caught in her throat, and the thought that she was the last and there would be no help overwhelmed her. Then, by what little light there was of the moon, the doorway of the shop gave way to a deeper blackness as it’s door was opened. A moment later the face of Ormin Schander appeared with the moonlight shining of his bald pate. It gave the impression that he was an apparition, a headless ghoul come to claim her.
“Move yer arse, woman!” he whispered with his characteristic violence.
Taking the advice she speedily followed the face into the darkness.
In the pitch darkness she heard the door closed then bolted. A shaded lantern was lit and a dull orange glow filled the room. In the dimness she could see thick paper, painted black, had been tacked to the windows to conceal their congress. Besides Ormin there were two other people in the room whom she knew. The first of these was an old woman with a patch of puckered flesh were her right eye had once been. With her was a man of middle age with the leanness and bearing of a soldier but the weariness in his eyes of a soldier grown tired of the fight. They were both hawk-nosed and had furry, furrowed brows. The likeness marked them as mother and son.
The old woman greeted her, not unkindly. “Clarye, child. We feared you taken by the guard and lost.” With her good eye the woman regarded the bundle. “All is well?”
In answer Clarye Gilden, the appointed Guardian, took the bundle from her breast and came nearer the light so that all present could look into the smiling face of the child the Emperor most feared above any man.
“She did not utter a sound or shed a tear. Though the guard surprised us and our escort Tamsin was taken by an arrow to the throat as we escaped, she was all contentment. As though she knew we would make good in our flight, though I certainly did not!”
At their corners the thin, bloodless lips of the old woman curved into a smile. “I would expect no less of the line of our king.”